Start Up No.1253: Facebook blocks coronavirus “urgency” ads, Gmail v Democrats, NTSB slams Tesla for Autopilot death, streaming passes 50% in UK, and more


It probably won’t catch fire – but the retardant chemicals that stop that aren’t great news either. CC-licensed photo by Scott Ogle on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Rest your weary head. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Toxic sofas are a secret scandal – and an ‘EU red tape’ bonfire will make it worse • The Guardian

George Monbiot:

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Until 2016, when he blew the whistle on spectacular malpractice within government, Terry Edge was the lead civil servant working on fire safety regulations for furniture. His research shows that, owing to decades of industry lobbying, homes in the UK have the world’s highest levels of dangerous flame retardants. It took until last year for mattresses and furniture containing the highly toxic retardant deca-BDE to be banned, under European law, from sale. Instead of prohibiting all such dangerous, persistent organic chemicals in furniture, the UK government has allowed one hazardous pollutant to be replaced by others (TCEP, TCPP and TDCP).

Even when such furnishings are removed from our homes, the hazard persists, as – in defiance of the Stockholm convention the UK has signed – they are still dumped in landfill or burned in incinerators at temperatures too low to destroy the toxic chemicals they release. Scarcely monitored, with unknown effects, these poisons steadily seep across the nation.

To make matters worse, far from saving us from fires, flame retardants appear to increase the risk. This is because the furniture containing them produces poisonous byproducts when it smoulders, including hydrogen cyanide, dioxins and furans. Since the 1990s, most of the deaths and injuries inflicted by fires in the UK have been caused not from burns but by inhaling toxic smoke. Edge contends that many of the deaths at Grenfell Tower were likely to have been caused by toxic emissions from furnishings but, as a result of the influence of industrial lobbyists, this cause has not been properly considered in the inquiry. A paper in the journal Chemosphere shows that furniture made from tightly woven natural fabrics is no more flammable than furniture treated with flame retardants, and produces far less toxic gas.

But using flame retardants is cheaper.

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“Cheaper” almost always means “worse” in safety circles. Yet another example.
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Facebook cracks down on ads about coronavirus • Business Insider

Rob Price:

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Facebook is tightening up its rules on ads that reference the novel coronavirus, in an attempt to curtail misinformation and fearmongering about the outbreak.

The social network will now ban ads that mention it if they promise to cure or prevent the virus, or attempt to “create a sense of urgency” about it.

In a statement, a spokesperson told Business Insider: “We recently implemented a policy to prohibit ads that refer to the coronavirus and create a sense of urgency, like implying a limited supply, or guaranteeing a cure or prevention. We also have policies for surfaces like Marketplace that prohibit similar behavior.”

Facebook, like other tech platforms, is currently grappling with a surge of panicked conversation and sometimes outright misinformation about COVID-19, which has sickened more than 79,000 people globally and killed more than 2,600 over the last few months.

Facebook utilises fact-checkers to check dubious claims and subsequently suppress them in its newsfeed, and in late January announced it was taking the additional step of outright removing false information about the outbreak “that have been flagged by leading global health organizations and local health authorities that could cause harm to people who believe them.”

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Unclear: will Facebook allow politicians – say, impeached presidents – to put ads on social media saying they’re in control of the outbreak and will have a vaccine in days?
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The End of Civilization and the Real Donald Trump • The Health Care Blog

Art Caplan, writing in March 2016 (before Trump was even the Republican candidate):

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The pandemic started quietly. In the spring of 2017 A few hundred dead chickens appeared in markets in Hong Kong and a few other cities in China…

…The CDC issued advisories nearly everyday. There was no vaccine available but efforts were underway to make one since the genome of the mutated virus had been sequenced. People were urged to stay home, wear masks, cover their mouths when coughing or sneezing and to get the annual flu shot since that might confer some protection.   Then President Trump decided to act.

He issued an Executive Order declaring that the border with Canada and Mexico be semi-sealed—essential commerce only. Passengers on all international flights were to be subjected to screening and temperature measurement. Many pointed out that these measures did not work and that the mutated virus was already in the U.S. Trump dismissed those concerns, noted that immigrants often brought disease along with them, that no one could be sure whether the outbreak was part of a conspiracy and that screening was the smartest thing to do.

As other Americans sickened and died Trump moved to quarantine those who were ill and their families. He said ‘the cowards did not do it for Ebola or zika and the thing is not gonna go out of control on my watch’. Americans did not take kindly to quarantine especially when no provision had been made for getting them food or removing garbage.

Soon people began to break quarantine—heading to supermarkets, hardware stores, and to visit relatives who themselves were homebound. Trump told every governor to get the state police involved to enforce quarantine but the numbers involved simply overwhelmed. Trump declared martial law and called out the military to enforce it supplemented by National Guard troops dispatched by cooperative governors.

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You’ve got to say that Caplan saw it pretty well, though not how Trump would first fire people essential to disease evaluation and epidemic control.
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Swinging the vote? • The Markup

Adrianne Jeffries, Leon Yin, and Surya Mattu:

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Pete Buttigieg is leading at 63%. Andrew Yang came in second at 46%. And Elizabeth Warren looks like she’s in trouble with 0%.

These aren’t poll numbers for the US 2020 Democratic presidential contest. Instead, they reflect which candidates were able to consistently land in Gmail’s primary inbox in a simple test. 

The Markup set up a new Gmail account to find out how the company filters political email from candidates, think tanks, advocacy groups, and nonprofits. 

We found that few of the emails we’d signed up to receive —11%—made it to the primary inbox, the first one a user sees when opening Gmail and the one the company says is “for the mail you really, really want.” 

Half of all emails landed in a tab called “promotions,” which Gmail says is for “deals, offers, and other marketing emails.” Gmail sent another 40% to spam. 

For political causes and candidates, who get a significant amount of their donations through email, having their messages diverted into less-visible tabs or spam can have profound effects.

“The fact that Gmail has so much control over our democracy and what happens and who raises money is frightening,” said Kenneth Pennington, a consultant who worked on Beto O’Rourke’s digital campaign.

“It’s scary that if Gmail changes their algorithms,” he added, “they’d have the power to impact our election.”

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Smart idea (though also: isn’t it a little worrying if we think that emails will make a difference to an election?) The Markup itself is an interesting new publication, which side-by-side shows its working – the code, the results, so you can replicate them.
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Federal safety official slams Tesla, regulators for Autopilot tech misuse • Los Angeles Times

Russ Mitchell:

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The nation’s top safety investigator slammed Tesla on Tuesday for failing to take adequate measures to prevent “foreseeable abuse” of its Autopilot driver-assistance technology, in a hearing into the fatal 2018 crash of a Tesla Model X SUV in Mountain View, Calif.

The National Transportation Safety Board said 38-year-old Walter Huang, an Apple software engineer, had Autopilot engaged in his 2018 Tesla Model X and was playing a video game on his iPhone when the car crashed into a defective safety barrier on U.S. Highway 101.

The board also blamed the highway safety arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation for failing to properly regulate rapidly evolving robot-car technology.

“Government regulators have provided scant oversight” of Autopilot and self-drive systems from other manufacturers, said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt at a safety board meeting in Washington, D.C. The board adopted a long list of measures meant to reduce such accidents as “partially automated driving” technologies become more popular in new vehicles.

Sumwalt pointed out that in 2017, the NTSB recommended automakers design driver-assist systems to prevent driver inattention and misuse. Automakers including Volkswagen, Nissan and BMW reported on their attempts to meet the recommendations, but Tesla never got back to the NTSB.

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There’s also criticism of Apple for not making “Do Not Disturb while driving” the default setting. Which strikes me as weird: it would have made absolutely no difference. This guy was disturbing – well, distracting – himself completely intentionally. Unfortunately he paid for price for putting too much trust in machines whose limits aren’t yet clear.

(And yes, we can discuss the difference between this unintentional death and that of rocketman Mike Hughes. I’d say it’s that Hughes knew what he was doing would be fatal unless everything went right. For Huang, it would only be fatal if everything went wrong.)
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British SVOD penetration at 50.5% • Digital TV Europe

Jonathan Easton:

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According to a new report from the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB), the number of UK homes with a subscription to at least one of Netflix, Amazon Prime Video or Now TV – the three leaders in the country – was at 14.27 million by the end of Q4 2019. This figure represents 50.5% of UK homes and is a quarterly increase of 4%, or almost 600,000.

Netflix is clearly the favourite amongst Brits, being subscribed to by 12.35 million households. The streamer’s continued growth has likely been fueled by a series of distribution agreements with major operators such as Sky. Netflix saw a year-over-year increase of 20%.

In second place is Amazon Prime Video, which grew by over 35% from Q4 2018 to 7.14 million homes.

Now TV, the OTT business of Comcast’s Sky, saw a year-over-year increase of 8% to 1.69 million households. The streamer however has seen two consecutive quarters of decline, with subscriber numbers peaking in Q2 2019 at 1.93 million, before dropping to 1.84 million in Q3.

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Plus 21% of households subscribed to two or more SVOD services.

Sky TV (the satellite provider) is in just under 8.5m, or 30% of households, according to BARB. I’d like to see the overlap between SVOD users and Sky users and then the breakdown in household income – and that would be quite a useful piece of data to feed into the BBC licence fee debate.
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The billion-dollar cryptocurrency scams you’ve never heard about • OZY

Godfrey Olukya:

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The suicide note cited “personal reasons.” But Ashraf Nusubuga, a radiology student at Kampala’s Makerere University — Uganda’s leading higher education institution — didn’t hang himself over a love affair gone wrong or because of academic pressure. The 22-year-old killed himself after losing money he had invested in a bogus cryptocurrency firm.

He had put all of his money — and some he had borrowed — into what turned out to be a Ponzi scheme, lured by the promise of high returns, according to Luke Oweyesigire, deputy spokesperson for Kampala Metropolitan Police. But Nusubuga isn’t the only one to have fallen victim.

A series of large cryptocurrency scams is rocking Uganda, turning the East African nation into an unlikely hub for fraudulent firms claiming to offer digital currencies, while preying on weak governance and low financial literacy. Other major cryptocurrency scams in 2019 involved developed economies — Japan’s BITPoint exchange lost $28 million, and con men in the U.K. and the Netherlands stole $27 million from Bitcoin users. Globally, cybercriminals stole $4.3 billion from users and exchanges last year. But Uganda is the worst hit — by far.  

At least five cryptocurrency firms have closed shop and walked away with a total of more than $26 million of their clients’ money in the past six months. From students and churchgoers to army officers and government officials, the victims span Ugandan society. Robert Bakalikwira, a criminal investigations officer probing these cases, estimates that in all, 200,000 Ugandans have lost about $1 billion, or almost 4% of the country’s GDP of $28 billion, over the past two years.

These scams are different from those in the West, where hackers have stolen from exchanges or robbed from people. In Uganda, fake firms claiming to offer cryptocurrencies are luring people to buy in, before walking away with their money.

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In fairness, there have been quite a few Western dupes who have been scammed in exactly the same way. (*Looks meaningfully at the scores of Initial Coin Offerings in the past three years*)
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GoodRx shares data with Google, Facebook and others • Consumer Reports

Thomas Germain:

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A few weeks ago, a woman named Marie received a prescription for a new medication, but the drug wasn’t covered by her insurance. “It was way too expensive for me to get on my own,” says Marie, a Philadelphia resident. (Like other consumers we spoke to, she asked us to withhold her last name to preserve her privacy.) “So I reached back out to my doctor. She directed me to GoodRx, and said I’d be able to afford the medicine with one of their coupons.” 

Marie’s doctor was right. “The discount was about $500,” she says. “I was excited to go fill the prescription and not have to worry about it anymore.”

Millions of people like Marie have downloaded the GoodRx app. The price comparisons and coupons it provides can save money on prescription drugs that otherwise would be out of reach for many patients. That’s why Consumer Reports and other organizations have recommended GoodRx in the past.

However, there is a tradeoff involved. While people like Marie are saving money with GoodRx, the company’s digital products are sending personal details about them to more than 20 other internet-based companies. Google, Facebook, and a marketing company called Braze all receive the names of medications people are researching, along with other details that could let them pinpoint whose phone or laptop is being used.

That worries patients like Marie, along with doctors and healthcare advocates we interviewed.

“It’s becoming a situation where privacy is for the privileged,” says Dena Mendelsohn, a senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports.

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Facebook’s latest ‘transparency’ tool doesn’t offer much — so we went digging • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:

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I set out to contact each of the six companies [listed as sending her data to Facebook] directly with questions — asking what data of mine they had transferred to Facebook and what legal basis they thought they had for processing my information.

(On a practical level six names looked like a sample size I could at least try to follow up manually — but remember I was the TechCrunch exception; imagine trying to request data from 1,117 companies, or 450 or even 57, which were the lengths of lists of some of my colleagues.)

This process took about a month and a lot of back and forth/chasing up. It likely only yielded as much info as it did because I was asking as a journalist; an average Internet user may have had a tougher time getting attention on their questions — though, under EU law, citizens have a right to request a copy of personal data held on them.

Eventually, I was able to obtain confirmation that tracking pixels and Facebook share buttons had been involved in my data being passed to Facebook in certain instances. Even so I remain in the dark on many things. Such as exactly what personal data Facebook received.

In one case I was told by a listed company that it doesn’t know itself what data was shared — only Facebook knows because it’s implemented the company’s “proprietary code”. (Insert your own ‘WTAF’ there.)

The legal side of these transfers also remains highly opaque. From my point of view I would not intentionally consent to any of this tracking — but in some instances the entities involved claim that (my) consent was (somehow) obtained (or implied).

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Is there a court case brewing on this? If there is, it would have to happen in the EU. What the UK’s status would be, who knows?
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Instagram CEO says iPad app hasn’t been made yet because ‘we only have so many people, and lots to do’ • MacRumors

Mitchel Broussard:

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Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri took to the platform over the weekend to answer a few user questions on his story, shared by The Verge’s Chris Welch. Among the many things asked, the topic of an official iPad app for Instagram was brought up, and Mosseri explained why we haven’t seen one yet.

According to Mosseri, the company “would like to build an iPad app” for Instagram, “But we only have so many people, and lots to do, and it hasn’t bubbled up as the next best thing to do yet.”

Instagram is technically viewable on iPad in a number of ways, but the company has never released a first-party iPad app that’s been optimized for the tablet.

Instagram users have been asking for an official iPad app nearly since the social network launched in 2010, the same year that the first iPad was released.

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It may have been true back until Facebook bought Instagram, and for a while afterward, that there weren’t the resources (eg they were building in the advertising system). Now, there’s zero advantage for Facebook in letting people escape from the phone, where the ads are impossible to ignore. An Instagram iPad app would be lovely, but people would spend too much time looking at user photos, not the advertising. And advertisers would have to create new versions of their ads optimised for the new iPad size(s). Potentially more money there for Instagram, but probably not outweighing the cost of development.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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