Start Up No.1279: ‘Contagion’ writer on what to expect, no more 5G conspiracies?, Bird Zooms 406 out of work, WeWork founder to lose a billion, and more

What if the BBC was funded by a levy on your internet connection rather than your TV ownership? CC-licensed photo by Karl Baron on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Comfortable yet? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

BBC suggests broadband ISP levy to replace UK TV licence fee • ISPreview UK

Mark Jackson:


in its response to the Government’s consultation, the BBC has also said that they’re willing to consider alternative funding models, such as one linked directly to an existing household bill.

Extract from the BBC’s Response:


In some countries the TV licence, or equivalent, is linked directly to an existing common household bill. For example it is collected through electricity bills in Italy and the equivalent of council tax bills in France. Another option to consider as the UK progresses towards universal access could be broadband bills.

This would be a significant change for the UK and we are not, at this stage, advocating it. It does however raise an interesting question as to whether the current system could be made much simpler, more efficient and more automated. We are open to exploring this further.


We suspect that consumers would not be universally welcoming of having their broadband bills so directly linked to the BBC TV Licence, particularly since most regard internet access as being an essential service but many would not hold the broadcaster’s own content to that same level of importance. Not that the content they create isn’t good, but broadband is simply on a different level and with other challenges.

The idea also raises complicated questions about how such a system might be imposed across such a diverse UK market, which may be dominated by a handful of major ISPs but is also home to hundreds of smaller providers. Such a levy would be quite a noticeable change and is certain to require regulatory approval, so as not to trigger penalty-free exit clauses (usually occurring when a provider imposes a mid-contract price hike).


People already have levies on their electricity bill to pay for desirable things (green electricity production). Why not look at how it’s done in France and Italy? If you’re going to have a national broadcaster, it seems sensible to have its income base as wide as possible; and it’s internet-supplied, so that would be a logical place to tap.
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‘Contagion’ writer Scott Burns on the coronavirus and parallels with his film • The Washington Post

Michele Norris interviewed Burns:


Q: Many people are turning to you because your “Contagion” screenplay seemed to predict the global pandemic. What do people want to know when they reach out?

It is sad, and it is frustrating. Sad because so many people are dying and getting sick. Frustrating because people still don’t seem to grasp the situation we are now in and how it could have been avoided by properly funding the science around all of this. It is also surreal to me that people from all over the world write to me asking how I knew it would involve a bat or how I knew the term “social distancing.” I didn’t have a crystal ball — I had access to great expertise. So, if people find the movie to be accurate, it should give them confidence in the public health experts who are out there right now trying to guide us.

People also want to know what I think will happen next. My sense is that we are still very much in the first act of this story — how it will go from here depends on how both the people and the government react in the days ahead. I never contemplated a federal response that was so ignorant, misguided and full of dangerous information. I thought our leaders were sworn to protect us. I don’t get to write this story this time. This is a story we are all writing together…

Q: Was there some hidden message that you left in the film to find our best selves or to stay calm instead of panic?

Yeah, I think the intention in the film — and there are a few scenes where you do see basic human kindness in the face of panic — is that this is an opportunity for a country, as divided as we are, to find common cause. And one of the things that epidemiologist Larry Brilliant has said to me over the years is that love is a big part of survival in these situations. Do you love someone enough to take care of yourself and to respect their vulnerability? Do you have a basic compassion for people less fortunate than you? Dr. Brilliant, you know, had always said to me, “There is, in every one of these, an opportunity for people to become heroic in the way that they respect and treat each other.”


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Scoop: Google to lift advertising ban on coronavirus topics • Axios

Sara Fischer:


Google will begin to allow some advertisers to run ads across its platforms that address the coronavirus, according to a Google memo sent to clients and obtained by Axios.

Democrats have argued that in banning attack ads targeting President Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including on YouTube, Google was shielding his campaign in a critical election year.

The broad ban had also stopped consumer advertisers, like retail and packaged goods companies, as well as corporate social responsibility advertisers like nonprofits, from running messaging about the virus.

According to the memo, sent from Google’s Head of Industry Mark Beatty to political advertising clients, Google is beginning to phase in advertisers who want to run ads related to COVID-19, prioritizing those advertisers that are working directly on this issue.


That ban didn’t last long. Wonder if Google is feeling the pinch at all on advertising yet.
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UK media outlets told not to promote baseless 5G coronavirus theories • The Guardian

Jim Waterson:


British broadcasters are being warned that they face sanctions from the media regulator if they give airtime to false health advice about coronavirus, after a Sussex radio station was given a severe warning for broadcasting baseless conspiracy theories that the pandemic is linked to the rollout of 5G phone networks.

Members of the public complained after hearing a broadcast on the community radio station Uckfield FM, in which a woman introduced as a “registered nurse” claimed, without any evidence, that the rollout of 5G phone technology in Wuhan was connected to the outbreak and that the virus had been created in a lab.

It later emerged that she was a practitioner of alternative medicines, while the media regulator said it was “not aware of any reputable scientific evidence to corroborate such a contentious claim which runs contrary to all official advice, both in the UK and internationally, about coronavirus.”

Ofcom confirmed it was actively monitoring television and radio stations that might be broadcasting potentially harmful views about the causes and origins of Covid-19 that have “the potential to undermine people’s trust in the advice of mainstream sources of information” during the crisis.

Baseless suggestions that coronavirus is linked to 5G have spread widely in recent weeks on WhatsApp, Facebook groups, and on the fast-growing community website NextDoor – all of which have the ability to reach vastly more people than a small community radio station in Sussex but are much less regulated.


“Here’s the news the MSM won’t tell you!”
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Here’s how Bird laid off 406 people in two minutes • dot.LA

Ben Bergman:


Travis VanderZanden, 41, a former top Uber executive who founded Bird only three years ago, had abruptly cancelled the previous Thursday’s regular biweekly all-hands meeting, referred to internally as Birdfams. He had not addressed Bird’s thousand-plus employees since they were forced to leave their offices, so most employees assumed he was giving an update on the company’s response to the worsening global pandemic.

But some grew suspicious when they noticed the guest list and host were hidden and they learned only some colleagues were included. It was also unusual they were being invited to a Zoom webinar, allowing no participation, rather than the free-flowing meeting function the company normally uses. Over the next hour, employees traded frantic messages on Slack and searched coworkers’ calendars to see who was unfortunate enough to be invited…

…[At 1030] thinking there were technical difficulties, some employees logged-off and were never able to return to the meeting. Then, after five minutes of dead air that seemed like an eternity, a robotic-sounding, disembodied voice came on the line.

The woman began by acknowledging “this is a suboptimal way to deliver this message.” Then she cut to the chase: “COVID-19 has also had a massive impact on our business, one that has forced our leadership team and our board of directors to make extremely difficult and painful decisions. One of those decisions is to eliminate a number of roles at the company. Unfortunately your role is impacted by this decision.”

The meeting was scheduled to last half an hour but ended up going for only two minutes. Towards the end of the monologue, as the woman started talking about the future of Bird, she sounded like she was getting choked up and was trying to hold back tears.

“It felt like a Black Mirror episode,” Alvauaje said. “This ominous voice came over and told us we were losing our jobs.”


Next step will be to get an AI to read it out, won’t it? In a nicely manicured voice. Using Google Plex.
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How Google ruined the internet • Superhighway 98


In 1998, the velocity of information was slow and the cost of publishing it was high (even on the web). Google leveraged those realities to make the best information retrieval system in the world.

Today, information is free, plentiful and fast moving; somewhat by design, Google has become a card catalog that is constantly being reordered by an angry, misinformed mob.

The web was supposed to forcefully challenge our opinions and push back, like a personal trainer who doesn’t care how tired you say you are. Instead, Google has become like the pampering robots in WALL-E, giving us what we want at the expense of what we need. But, it’s not our bodies that are turning into mush: It’s our minds.


The main Superhighway 98 site itself is quite a throwback: 100 links, each to a site with a specific, identifiably useful purpose. I can’t find who the author is.
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WeWork founder Adam Neumann loses out as SoftBank scraps share buyout • CNN

Sherisse Pham:


SoftBank is walking away from a sizeable chunk of its WeWork rescue package, which included a near billion dollar windfall for ousted founder Adam Neumann.

The Japanese tech company has backed out of a plan to buy $3bn worth of shares in the coworking startup from existing shareholders and investors, according to statements from SoftBank and a special committee of WeWork’s board.

SoftBank’s chief legal officer, Rob Townsend, said in a statement on Thursday that the share purchase was subject to certain conditions agreed to in October.

“Several of those conditions were not met, leaving SoftBank no choice but to terminate the tender offer,” he said.

Shares in SoftBank (SFTBY) closed up 2.5% in Tokyo following the announcement.

The about face cuts deep for Neumann — the October agreement had included an offer to buy up to $975m worth of the WeWork founder’s shares — and is further evidence that SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son is stepping back from his trademark high-risk investment strategy after the company’s shares cratered earlier this year.


World’s tiniest violin factory overwhelmed with global demand.
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Where America didn’t stay home even as the virus spread • The New York Times

James Glanz, Benedict Carey, Josh Holder, Derek Watkins, Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Rick Rojas and Lauren Leatherby:


Stay-at-home orders have nearly halted travel for most Americans, but people in Florida, the Southeast and other places that waited to enact such orders have continued to travel widely, potentially exposing more people as the coronavirus outbreak accelerates, according to an analysis of cellphone location data by The New York Times.

The divide in travel patterns, based on anonymous cellphone data from 15 million people, suggests that Americans in wide swaths of the West, Northeast and Midwest have complied with orders from state and local officials to stay home. Disease experts who reviewed the results say those reductions in travel — to less than a mile a day, on average, from about five miles — may be enough to sharply curb the spread of the coronavirus in those regions, at least for now.

“That’s huge,” said Aaron A. King, a University of Michigan professor who studies the ecology of infectious disease. “By any measure this is a massive change in behavior, and if we can make a similar reduction in the number of contacts we make, every indication is that we can defeat this epidemic.”

But not everybody has been staying home.

In areas where public officials have resisted or delayed stay-at-home orders, people changed their habits far less. Though travel distances in those places have fallen drastically, last week they were still typically more than three times those in areas that had imposed lockdown orders, the analysis shows.

A half-dozen of the most populous counties where residents were traveling widely last week are in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis resisted calling for a statewide lockdown until Wednesday. People in Jacksonville, Tampa, Daytona Beach, Lakeland and surrounding areas continued to travel much more than people in other parts of the country, putting those areas at a higher risk for outbreaks in the coming weeks.


Nearly as many people writing it as tracked. The data is remarkable, and the argument that “in the rural areas you can’t stay put” doesn’t quite gel: many of those have very dense cities too. The other eye-opener is that this data can be acquired at all. You’re not going to see this in European publications.
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Zoom announces 90-day feature freeze to fix privacy and security issues • The Verge

Tom Warren:


The challenges of supporting 200 million users compared to just 10 million a few months ago are significant enough, but the privacy and security issues that have been uncovered recently present greater challenges for the company. Zoom is and focusing on its security and privacy issues instead. “Over the next 90 days, we are committed to dedicating the resources needed to better identify, address, and fix issues proactively,” explains Yuan. “We are also committed to being transparent throughout this process.”

All of Zoom’s engineering resources will now be focused on safety and privacy issues, and the company is planning a “comprehensive review” with third-parties to ensure it’s handling the security of these new consumer cases properly.

Zoom is also committing to releasing a transparency report to share the number of requests from law enforcement and governments for user data. It’s something that digital rights advocacy groups have called on Zoom to release. Zoom is also “enhancing” its bug bounty program, consulting with other chief information security officers across the industry, and using white box penetration tests to identify other security bugs.

Yuan will also hold a weekly webinar on Wednesdays at 10AM PT / 1PM ET to discuss privacy and security updates for Zoom as it tackles its response over the next 90 days.


Good; rather like Microsoft (belatedly) focussing on security after the Swiss cheese of Windows XP. Impressive that it comes exactly a day after Ben Thompson pointed out this was what it should do in his Stratechery newsletter.
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‘Rats out of the sewers’: ad fraudsters are leaping on the coronavirus crisis • Digiday

Lara O’Reilly:


Website traffic is surging. But with advertisers adding coronavirus-related keywords to their block lists and others pausing spend altogether, ad prices on news sites are low. With less competition in the auction, low quality ads — and even publishers’ own house ads — are now making their way to the most prized ad slots on homepages. The fraudsters have quickly leaped into action., a company that offers malvertising protection to publishers, found there was a surge in malvertising campaigns starting Mar. 11.’s “global threat level” — a percentage calculation of the number of threats blocked divided by the number of pageviews it behaviorally analyzed — was 50 times higher during the surge to the end of March relative to the start of the month.  Around 1% of all pageviews analyzed over the past two weeks were impacted by malicious ads, compared with a very low baseline of around 0.02% at the beginning of the month.

The U.S. has seen a significantly higher increase in malvertising compared with the rest of the world over the last month, according to The company said it analyzed the JavaScript within ads on tens of thousands of sites and apps that generate tens of billions of monthly page views.

The market forces of lower ad prices and extraordinarily high traffic “have basically brought the rats out of the sewers,” said CEO Matt Gillis.

Ad fraud tends to spike over weekends and holidays as more people switch to personal devices versus work devices that tend to have better security settings. But with the majority of people now at home, there are more opportunities for bad actors to pounce.


Rats is the word.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Yesterday I wondered whether we could figure out how accurate a SARS-Cov-2 test which said it had 90% specificity, 90% sensitivity was. Gordon McKenzie writes: “These are specific medical statistics which can take a bit of getting your head around. They relate to the population as a whole, they don’t tell you a lot about any single individual test.

“Sensitivity is True Positive / (True Positive + False Negative). This is a measure of how likely you are to find everyone that has the disease. So, 90% sensitivity means you’ll find 90 of every 100 with the lurgy. Specificity is the other side of that coin. 90% specificity means you’ll correctly identify 90 of every 100 who are healthy (TN / (TN+FP)).

“What’s interesting is that these two factors don’t tell you how likely your individual test result is to be correct. For that you need the Positive and Negative Predictive Values. Without more data, those don’t just drop out.”

In other words: we don’t know. Await more information.

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