Start Up No.1310: Google faces antitrust threat, Facebook swallows Giphy, OnePlus’s see-through camera, lipsyncing Trump, and more

When (if?) there’s a coronavirus vaccine, will the desire to get back to “normal” overwhelm antivaccine idiocy? CC-licensed photo by frankieleon on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not in a field. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The US government is getting ready to sue Google for monopolizing online ads • The Verge

Russell Brandom and Makena Kelly:


The Justice Department and a coalition of state attorneys general are likely to file antitrust charges against Google in the coming months, according to a new report by The Wall Street Journal. The reporting is consistent with earlier statements by Attorney General William Barr, who said he expected a decision to be made sometime this summer.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton confirmed the general timeline in a statement to the Journal, saying he would “hope to have the investigation wrapped up by fall,” although he would not commit to whether charges would be filed.

The investigation is one of the greatest efforts to regulate Google by the US government, with rare coordination between state and federal law enforcement. Google has turned over more than 100,000 documents to investigators as part of the ongoing probe, and civil demands have been served to a number of related third parties. Notably, the investigation does not include Justice Department antitrust chief Makan Delrahim, who has recused himself because of former lobbying work involving Google.

On a call with reporters on Thursday, Paxton said the primary focus was the broad reach of Google’s online advertising network, the economic heart of the company. “We think Google has 7,000 data points on just about every human being alive,” Paxton told reporters on the call. “They control the buy-side [of online advertising], the sell-side and the market which we are concerned gives them way too much power.”


Can’t see this sticking. Having a monopoly is not illegal. Using your monopoly to annexe an adjacent market can be an antitrust violation. But that’s not the accusation. The topic to go after Google on antitrust was, and remains, its favouring of its own Shopping and downranking of rivals in its search results. That’s what the EU went after.
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Google erases thousands of links, tricked by phony complaints • WSJ

Andrea Fuller, Kirsten Grind and Joe Palazzolo:


A Google search, at one time, could locate a news article on a man accused of attempted child rape, another on someone charged with fraud and still others on Ukrainian politicians facing corruption allegations. Googling certain keywords in March would find an article detailing the movements of two coronavirus-infected British tourists in Vietnam and warning others who visited the same places to take precautions.

Then the stories vanished.

Google stopped listing them in searches after it received formal requests that it scrub links to the pieces, a Wall Street Journal investigation found.

The Journal identified hundreds of instances in which individuals or companies, often using apparently fake identities, caused the Alphabet Inc. unit to remove links to unfavorable articles and blog posts that alleged wrongdoing by convicted criminals, foreign officials and businesspeople in the U.S. and abroad.

Google took them down in response to copyright complaints, many of which appear to be bogus, the Journal found in an analysis of information from the more than four billion links sent to Google for removal since 2011.

Google’s system was set up to comply with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA. The 1998 law gives tech firms immunity from claims in copyright cases as long they quickly take down copyrighted material once alerted.


Google can’t win this one. There are lots of malicious actors doing this (and using the Right To Be Forgotten in Europe). Yet there are links that do need to be taken down. So.. you get humans to review every one? Now you’re employing tons of people of varying capability to make difficult decisions, which might need to be reviewed by someone else. You thought you were running a search engine but you seem to be running a content review site. That doesn’t scale. So you look at machine intelligence, but how is it going to determine questions like this? So you just automate it. And now the WSJ is writing nasty pieces about the failure of your automation.
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Get ready for a Covid-19 vaccine information war • The New York Times

Kevin Roose:


It occurred to me that all the misinformation we’ve seen so far — the false rumors that 5G cellphone towers fuel the coronavirus, that drinking bleach or injecting UV rays can cure it, that Dr. Anthony Fauci is part of an anti-Trump conspiracy — may be just the warm-up act for a much bigger information war when an effective vaccine becomes available to the public. This war could pit public health officials and politicians against an anti-vaccination movement that floods social media with misinformation, conspiracy theories and propaganda aimed at convincing people that the vaccine is a menace rather than a lifesaving, economy-rescuing miracle.

Scariest of all? It could actually work.

I’ve been following the anti-vaccine community on and off for years, watching its members operate in private Facebook groups and Instagram accounts, and have found that they are much more organized and strategic than many of their critics believe. They are savvy media manipulators, effective communicators and experienced at exploiting the weaknesses of social media platforms. (Just one example: Shortly after Facebook and YouTube began taking down copies of “Plandemic” for violating their rules, I saw people in anti-vaccine groups editing it in subtle ways to evade the platforms’ automated enforcement software and reposting it.)

In short, the anti-vaxxers have been practicing for this. And I’m worried that they will be unusually effective in sowing doubts about a Covid-19 vaccine for several reasons.

First, because of the pandemic’s urgency, any promising Covid-19 vaccine is likely to be fast-tracked through the testing and approval process. It may not go through years of clinical trials and careful studies of possible long-term side effects, the way other drugs do. That could create an opening for anti-vaccine activists to claim that it is untested and dangerous, and to spin reasonable concerns about the vaccine into widespread, unfounded fears about its safety.

Second, if a vaccine does emerge, there is a good chance that leading health organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the World Health Organization will have a hand in producing or distributing it.


Could be heavily dependent on whether you need vaccination (proven) to “get back to normal”. He speaks to the researchers who produced the study below.
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The online competition between pro- and anti-vaccination views • Nature

Neil Johnson and plenty of others:


Here we provide a map of the contention surrounding vaccines that has emerged from the global pool of around three billion Facebook users. Its core reveals a multi-sided landscape of unprecedented intricacy that involves nearly 100 million individuals partitioned into highly dynamic, interconnected clusters across cities, countries, continents and languages.

Although smaller in overall size, anti-vaccination clusters manage to become highly entangled with undecided clusters in the main online network, whereas pro-vaccination clusters are more peripheral. Our theoretical framework reproduces the recent explosive growth in anti-vaccination views, and predicts that these views will dominate in a decade. Insights provided by this framework can inform new policies and approaches to interrupt this shift to negative views.


“These views will dominate in a decade”. What’s the opposite of enlightenment?
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How Facebook could use Giphy to collect your data • OneZero

Owen Williams:


What might not be obvious, however, is that each search and GIF you send with Giphy [which Facebook bought for $400m on Friday] is also a “beacon” that allows the company to track how and where the image is being shared, as well as the sentiment the image expresses. Giphy wraps each of its animated GIFs in a special format that helps the image load faster, and also embeds a tiny piece of Javascript that lets the company know where the image is being loaded, as well as a tracking identifier that helps follow your browsing across the web.

When embedded into third-party apps, Giphy can track each keystroke that’s searched using Giphy tools. Developers who install Giphy tools into their apps are required to give the service access to the device’s tracking ID. Such access allows Giphy (and now, Facebook) to better match the identity of a user across the apps they use on their phone.

Not every app that has historically integrated Giphy wants to give that data to another company. Secure messaging platform Signal, for example, has gone to lengths to ensure that Giphy was unable to identify users through their Giphy use by intercepting GIF requests and performing them on their own servers, then delivering the ultimate image match themselves. To Giphy, it looks like Signal is making the search, rather than a specific user.

Giphy is integrated everywhere from an iOS keyboard app to Twitter, that’s a good signal Facebook is betting big on using the service to peer inside the wider internet.

For Facebook, Giphy is a match made in heaven: Not only does the startup already get 50% of its traffic from the social media giant’s apps, but bringing it in-house provides a way to peek inside a vast swath of apps and websites beyond its own. That gives Facebook an opportunity to better understand user behavior in its own apps, and beyond, and ultimately could enhance its ad-tracking capabilities further. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how it plans to use Giphy’s tracking capabilities.


Talent or data; the only reasons Facebook buys stuff. As The Verge points out, Apple and others won’t like this and will probably take action to block it.
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The OnePlus 8 Pro doesn’t have an ‘x-ray’ camera, but here’s how it sees through things • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:


Here’s what’s happening here. Cameras are typically designed to capture light in the same wavelengths that humans can see. There’s no reason they have to be, and there are wavelengths of light that cameras are capable of capturing but simply don’t, because doing so would introduce visual artifacts into the spectrum bands that humans can see. In this case, OnePlus’ camera is picking up infrared light that our eyes can’t normally see. The combination of a slightly opaque (in visible light) surface and the OnePlus 8’s slightly infrared-friendly camera can combine to create output we wouldn’t normally get. The result? An x-ray (or “x-ray” camera).

Your brain is capable of seeing colors you don’t normally process if handed the input to do so. Some years ago, we wrote about the case of a man who had the lenses of his eye replaced with artificial ones. As sometimes happens in these cases, the new artificial lenses allowed him to see deeper into the ultraviolet than is typical for humans. Tests with precise spectrographic measuring equipment confirmed it. When handed deeper UV light than we typically see, your brain is capable of mapping it to visual output, to some modest extent.

Back to the OnePlus 8. In this case, the camera that’s doing the sensing is a low-quality sensor that doesn’t take very good photos. AndroidCentral has dismissed the privacy risk for this reason, given that the “Photochrom” mode apparently degrades image quality further. The overall privacy risk is small, the company claims, though we can understand why folks might be leery given how easily footage finds its way online these days. This also is a problem OnePlus really should have caught in-factory.


Useful? Not at all. Unless I’ve missed something. As Hruska points out, you’ll find out a lot more using a screwdriver.
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The comedian going viral for lip-syncing Trump: ‘People really hate him’ • The Guardian

Poppy Noor:


Sarah Cooper never expected to become internet famous during a pandemic, but now she is a viral TikTok celebrity who makes people laugh without saying anything. How? She lets Trump say it all for her: Cooper lip-syncs Trump’s worst comments from press conferences.

Her recent clips include her dubbing Elon Musk explaining without embarrassment the decision to name his child X Æ A-12, but her first viral moment came following that press conference, when Trump suggested Americans ingest disinfectant to cure the coronavirus.

As soon as she heard it, she knew it was comedy gold. “The thing of trying to put light into your body and inject[ing] household cleaner into your veins – it was so visual to me, and I thought, ‘I have to make this’,” she tells me.

Within hours of the press conference Cooper had uploaded the TikTok video, simply captioned “How to medical” and watched as millions of laughs and likes came rolling in.


She’s very, very funny. Of course, she’s got great material and doesn’t have to pay for it. But the performance, that’s all her.
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Glastonbury 5G report ‘hijacked by conspiracy theorists’ – BBC News

Rory Cellan-Jones:


Another witness [to Glastonbury town council’s deliberations about 5G] was Dr Andrew Tresidder, a former GP whose website offers flower remedies and emotional healing. His presentation focused on people claiming to suffer from “electromagnetic stress”, which he said was often not taken seriously by mainstream doctors.

Committee member Roy Procter, a spiritual healer who claims dowsing can heal “sick houses”, also gave a presentation. In the report, he speculates about a link between the coronavirus and 5G, and recommends that the council eliminate all wi-fi connections.

The committee’s chairman, Councillor Jon Cousins, told the BBC he strongly disagrees with the suggestion that the meetings were biased towards pseudo-science. “Equal weight was given to all contributions,” he says, adding that councillors “were able to take into account the prejudice, predetermination and bias displayed on all sides of the argument”…

…The committee did hear evidence from Mobile UK, the mobile operators’ trade body.
Its presentation was criticised by one member for being “glossy”, and others alleged there was no attempt to answer questions.

Gareth Elliott of Mobile UK denied that: “We answered everything that was asked of us.” However, he said it was a cordial meeting and his organisation respected the views of the committee.

He recounts an incident where one committee member arrived late to a meeting. She said that although she was hyper-sensitive to electromagnetic emissions, she deemed the meeting room to be safe.

“It was then noted that a Wi-Fi router was operating and was in the room,” he says.


It’s hilarious, principally because Glastonbury town council has absolutely no power to ban 5G. I can only imagine how much BBC legal teethsucking this piece provoked, even though Rory was painstakingly careful to allow everyone to speak.

(Long, long ago we told Guardian readers how they could figure out if they were really able to detect when a Wi-Fi router was on. The paper mentioned in that article looked at whether people have “sensitivity” to mobile mast emissions. Finding: nope.)
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The most trafficked mammal you’ve never heard of •

John Sutter, in 2014:


It’s hard to overstate the amount of stress that trafficking routes put on pangolins. They’re not happy travelers. Often they haven’t had food or water for days and are perilously dehydrated. Forty% die within a day or two of arriving at the [rescue] center, Phuong told me. The rest are injected with hydrating fluids and kept in quarantine until they can be moved to a larger cage.

All of this made me a little nervous to meet “Lucky”.

After standing there for a minute, I saw him breathing. It was hard to notice at first, but the hexagonal scales on his back rose and fell in a slow, oceanic motion. He must have smelled us, because his slender, toothless snout started to peek out of the ball like a cobra rising from a snake charmer’s basket. Soon, he was looking at us with curious blueberry eyes, bobbing his head and sniffing the air.

The photographer, who asked not to be identified in this story because he lives in Vietnam and fears retribution, got right in his face — SNAP SNAP SNAP — and Lucky just kept investigating the scene, putting his nose right up against the lens.

“He’s performing,” Phuong said with a smile…

…[Sutter then went to a restaurant in Vietnam to follow the illegal trade:] I talked it over with Z, the wildlife investigator who was my tour guide and whose identity I’m withholding because he continues to investigate the wildlife trade in Vietnam undercover. He suggested that I not place the order – or that he didn’t want to be a part of it if I did. I’d be giving a substantial amount of money to a black-market industry, he said. And I’d also be ensuring that one specific live pangolin (I thought of Lucky in this moment) would end up dead.

That last part didn’t quite make sense to me. I figured pangolins, like chicken or whatever, would already be dead in a meat freezer in the kitchen. Consequently, I figured I could argue (to myself and to you) that I hadn’t actually killed a pangolin by ordering it. It was already dead.

But that’s not how it works. As the waitress explained, with the poise of a “Downton Abbey” cast member, the staff would bring the pangolin out to the table live — and slit its throat. Right in front of us.


Grisly. As Sutter explains, they’re charming creatures, and being hunted to extinction for people to have stupid meals. Also, pangolins do carry coronaviruses, of various types.
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SARS-CoV-2 is well adapted for humans. What does this mean for re-emergence? • bioRxiv

Shing Hei Zhan, Benjamin Deverman and Yujia Alina Chan, in a preprint:


Our observations suggest that by the time SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in late 2019, it was already pre-adapted to human transmission to an extent similar to late epidemic SARS-CoV. However, no precursors or branches of evolution stemming from a less human-adapted SARS-CoV-2-like virus have been detected. The sudden appearance of a highly infectious SARS-CoV-2 presents a major cause for concern that should motivate stronger international efforts to identify the source and prevent near future re-emergence. Any existing pools of SARS-CoV-2 progenitors would be particularly dangerous if similarly well adapted for human transmission. To look for clues regarding intermediate hosts, we analyze recent key findings relating to how SARS-CoV-2 could have evolved and adapted for human transmission, and examine the environmental samples from the Wuhan Huanan seafood market. Importantly, the market samples are genetically identical to human SARS-CoV-2 isolates and were therefore most likely from human sources.


What they’re saying (the TL;DR) in this not-peer-reviewed article is that you’d expect to see early, less well-adapted versions of SARS-Cov-2 in samples from people who were at the Wuhan wet market if that was the origin of its crossover into humans. But they say all the versions are tightly conserved (genetically speaking), which suggests they’re coming from a human (or humans) who had earlier, not-yet-found versions which were less well-adapted.

I’d go for pangolin truck drivers, myself.

One of the authors, Alina Chan, has been busy on Twitter saying no, this doesn’t mean it’s made by humans, but that we need to know more. Didn’t stop the Mail on Sunday describing it as a “landmark study”: the Mail seems to have an agenda where it wants the virus to have emerged from a laboratory. Nobody has that data, nor a smoking gun to it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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