Start Up No.1321: meet the Clubhouse audio app, image scrubbing for protesters, Huawei CFO faces extradition, Facebook staff walk out, and more


Google’s newer Pixel phones are getting an update to help in situations like this. CC-licensed photo by d26b73 on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Dallas Police asked people to submit videos of protestors but instead they got K-Pop • Buzzfeed News

Caroline Haskins:

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On Sunday, the Dallas Police Department asked people to send in “video of illegal activity” from the Black Lives Matter protests in the city through the iWatch Dallas app, where people can submit photo, video, or text tips about possible crimes. Instead, it received a flood of pictures and videos of K-pop artists.

In response to the tweeted request from Dallas Police, hundreds of K-pop fans replied with photos and videos of their favorite artists. Many people also claimed to have submitted videos of the police harming protesters, as well as fan edits of K-pop artists, to the iWatch Dallas app.

Within hours of the original tweet, the Dallas Police Department followed up with a tweet that the iWatch Dallas app was down temporarily “due to technical difficulties.” (K-pop fans confirmed they too were having difficulties submitting to the app.) Hundreds of people subsequently replied to this Dallas PD tweet with memes and videos of K-pop artists.

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Hmm, possibly not quite reading the social media room there. People who were at the protests are unlikely to be the ones who’d send content to the DPD. Speaking of images at protests…
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Image Scrubber • Github

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This is a tool for anonymizing photographs taken at protests.

It will remove identifying metadata (Exif data) from photographs, and also allow you to selectively blur parts of the image to cover faces and other identifiable information.

Hit the open button to open a photograph. The program will display the data it is removing.

Click okay, and you can then save the scrubbed image by hitting save or right clicking on it and saving it. Maximum size is 2500×2500 pixels – larger images will be scaled down.

You can select between painting over the image or blurring it out. Dragging on the image will paint on or blur it. You can change your brush size via the slider. The blur function has built-in pixel shuffling/noise and is fairly secure but sensitive information should be covered with the paint tool.

This tool works offline: on a phone you can load the page then turn on airplane mode (or turn off wifi/data) before opening any pictures.

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Works on computers too, essentially as a web server on your machine. Probably useful for other things too, but being able to deploy it on the spot could be helpful.
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The over-under on the new voice-chat app Clubhouse • The Information

Sam Lessin:

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Clubhouse is an extremely simple audio chat-room app. You log in as a user and see a handful of conversations (usually one or two right now) going on with lists of who is listening and who is speaking in each. You don’t see any other context about the topic.

You can choose to enter a conversation as a listener, at which point you hear—much like talk radio—the live conversation of whoever is speaking. You can be invited to speak, ask to speak (raise your hand) in an existing conversation, or start a new conversation that others can join.

Small, subtle details keep conversations flowing smoothly. For instance, the conversation keeps going even when you leave the app on your phone (it is actually quite challenging to turn off the audio once you enter a conversation, which encourages people to linger and listen to others talk). The app also does some smart things with push notifications to help people engage in conversations.

The best analogy for the app overall is that it feels like being in the lobby of a conference between scheduled sessions. You see clusters of people gathered. You likely recognize some of them, but not all. You can choose to walk over and join a circle and hear what people are talking about and perhaps participate, and if it turns out the topic is not of interest, you can move on.

The app offers something similar to those spontaneous miniconference conversations. You get to briefly see and hear from people whom you might like but don’t generally spend time with. Every once in a while you hear something interesting you wouldn’t have otherwise heard or thought of. And it can be fun and interesting to hear directly from luminaries—people you wouldn’t normally have access to—who happen to be hanging out in the app.

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But, he says, there are three problems with it right now: “the vast majority of the content and conversations are not engaging” because they aren’t constrained (contrast: TikTok – 30 seconds and you’re out), the conversations are ephemeral rather than permanent (creates long-term problems over user trust), and someone else might just bolt it on to their app. Looking at you, Facebook. Anyway, their latest round valued them at $100m; they’ve raised $10m.
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Pixel feature drop lands, improves Adaptive Battery • Android Authority

C Scott Brown:

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Here are the new updates your phone will enjoy once you’ve downloaded the latest Pixel feature drop:

Adaptive Battery: This feature helps conserve precious battery life by reducing system activity as you get closer to zero. Now, though, Adaptive Battery is actually predicting when your phone will run out of battery and compensating appropriately. Of course, bigger batteries would help negate the need for this feature, but Google may have finally gotten that message.
• Prepare for Bedtime: This new Pixel feature drop brings some updates to Google’s suite of Digital Wellbeing tools. Bedtime — which was previously known as Wind Down — has a few new tricks to help you sleep better…
• Recorder and Assistant working together: Google’s incredibly powerful Recorder app makes it a snap to record lectures, interviews, and meetings. Now, you can use Google Assistant to control Recorder, which means simple voice commands can start/stop recordings. You can also use your voice to search your transcripts.
• Real-life protection: This third Pixel feature drop will not only make your phone more useful, but it will also help keep you safer. Safety check helps you check-in with friends and family while you’re traveling alone and you can issue emergency alerts to several contacts all at once.

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The protection feature is a good idea.
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Extradition of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei CFO, clears major hurdle • The New York Times

Tracy Sherlock and Dan Bilefsky:

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The chief financial officer of the Chinese technology giant Huawei came one step closer to standing trial in the United States on sweeping fraud charges after a Canadian court ruled on Wednesday that prosecutors had satisfied a critical legal requirement for her extradition from Canada.

The executive, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Vancouver in December 2018, at the request of the United States, and indicted in January 2019. Her detention set off one of the biggest legal dramas in recent Canadian memory, its twists and turns parsed on national television.

Her arrest also thrust Canada into the middle of a diplomatic struggle between the United States and China — over trade, theft of technology secrets and whether Huawei’s efforts in helping countries build 5G next-generation mobile networks present a threat to national security.

And it severely strained Canada’s own relations with China. Shortly after Ms. Meng’s arrest, China detained — in retaliation, some say — two Canadians and accused them of espionage. They are still in secret jails in China.

That relationship has become more fraught since, with Canadians criticizing China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its human rights policies. Wednesday’s decision is expected to aggravate those tensions.

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I was wondering the other day what happened to this. And now we know. Gradually, gradually.
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For cops who kill, special Supreme Court protection • Reuters

Andrew Chung, Lawrence Hurley, Jackie Botts, Andrea Januta and Guillermo Gomez, writing on May 8 about the two-step process which frequently gives American police “qualified immunity” against lawsuits when they kill people:

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Reuters found among the cases it analyzed more than three dozen in which qualified immunity protected officers whose actions had been deemed unlawful. Outside of Dallas, Texas, five officers fired 17 shots at a bicyclist who was 100 yards away, killing him, in a case of mistaken identity. In Heber City, Utah, an officer threw to the ground an unarmed man he had pulled over for a cracked windshield, leaving the man with brain damage. In Prince George’s County, Maryland, an officer shot a man in a mental health crisis who was stabbing himself and trying to slit his own throat.

The increasing frequency of such cases has prompted a growing chorus of criticism from lawyers, legal scholars, civil rights groups, politicians and even judges that qualified immunity, as applied, is unjust. Spanning the political spectrum, this broad coalition says the doctrine has become a nearly failsafe tool to let police brutality go unpunished and deny victims their constitutional rights.

The high court has indicated it is aware of the mounting criticism of its treatment of qualified immunity. After letting multiple appeals backed by the doctrine’s critics pile up, the justices are scheduled to discuss privately as soon as May 15 which, if any, of 11 such cases they could hear later this year.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, one of the court’s most liberal members, and Clarence Thomas, its most conservative, have in recent opinions sharply criticized qualified immunity and the court’s role in expanding it.

In a dissent to a 2018 ruling, Sotomayor, joined by fellow liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, wrote that the majority’s decision favoring the cops tells police that “they can shoot first and think later, and it tells the public that palpably unreasonable conduct will go unpunished.”

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This was timely, but it’s incredible that such a huge case law hurdle has built up at a time when American police carry increasingly dangerous weapons.
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Trump’s plan to end Obama’s peaceful police reform succeeded • NY Mag

Jonathan Chait:

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The world around us, in which the streets of every major American city are filled with protesters, is the result of Trump granting the wishes of the most retrograde police officers. They are getting what they asked for.

The last few years of the Obama administration were one of the most productive periods of criminal justice reform in American history. The Obama administration changed sentencing guidelines to reduce the disparity in the treatment of drug crimes that had disproportionately harmed black defendants. As part of an effort to inculcate a “guardian, not a warrior” mindset, it restricted the transfer of surplus military equipment to police departments. Most importantly, it formed consent decrees with more than a dozen police departments to force them to change their practices.

These reforms did not root out brutality and racism. They were mild both in form and intent, undertaken with the goal of conciliating police and their communities, believing that enhancing trust would ultimately create safer conditions for police as well as those who fear them. It was the epitome of evolutionary cultural change.

This was the context for Trump’s nightmarish claims in 2016 that cities were being overtaken by bloodshed and carnage. Whatever wisps of data he could cite to support his wild rhetoric, Trump was drawing a picture borrowed from the imaginations of resentful police who experienced Obama’s carefully drawn nudges as intolerable oppression.

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We’re starting to get the picture now of how this all came about. Expect that this will get mentioned in an anti-Trump ad ahead of the election. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Facebook employees hold virtual walkout over Mark Zuckerberg’s refusal to act against Trump • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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Disagreement came from employees at all levels of the company, including some senior staff. Particular criticism was levelled at Zuckerberg’s personal decision to leave up the Facebook version of a tweet sent by Trump in which the president appeared to encourage police to shoot rioters. By contrast, Twitter hid the message behind a warning.

Andrew Crow, the head of design for Facebook’s Portal videophone, tweeted: “Giving a platform to incite violence and spread disinformation is unacceptable, regardless who you are or if it’s newsworthy. I disagree with Mark’s position and will work to make change happen.”

Jason Stirman, a member of the company’s R&D team and the former chief executive of the “mental training” app Lucid, also posted on Twitter, saying: “I don’t know what to do, but I know doing nothing is not acceptable. I’m a FB employee that completely disagrees with Mark’s decision to do nothing about Trump’s recent posts, which clearly incite violence. I’m not alone inside of FB. There isn’t a neutral position on racism.”

On Friday Zuckerberg said he disagreed with Twitter’s interpretation of Trump’s statement, which included the phrase: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Where Twitter had read the statement as incitement  – encouraging police to shoot at protesters – Zuckerberg said he read it as a warning to protesters that the police would be shooting at them. The distinction meant that the post fell on the right side of Facebook’s rules, Zuckerberg said, and would not be removed.

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The number of people who have publicly expressed discontent is remarkable. Normally, it’s absolutely crickets. There’s an echo of what happened at Microsoft over antitrust, and Google over its tailored-for-China search engine: you stop becoming the place where people want to work, because the reputational hit hurts. However, these are unusual times in so many ways: jobs in the tech industry aren’t as easy to come by as before. Perhaps there will be passive resistance over this. But Zuckerberg likely isn’t for moving; read on.
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Facebook employees stage virtual walkout to protest Trump posts • The New York Times

Sheera Frankel, Mike Isaac and Cecilia Kang:

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In private online chats, employees have called for the resignation of Joel Kaplan, Facebook’s vice president of global policy. Mr. Kaplan is seen as being a strong conservative voice within the company. In 2018, he upset some employees when he sat in the front row of the confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was a close friend.

Roger McNamee, a venture capitalist who was an early investor in Facebook but in recent years has turned into an aggressive critic of the company, said Facebook’s decision to leave Mr. Trump’s posts alone was typical of a longtime pattern of behavior among big social media companies.

“Internet platforms that are pervasive — as Facebook and Google are globally — must always align with power, including authoritarians. It is a matter of self-preservation,” Mr. McNamee said. “Facebook has been a key tool for authoritarians in Brazil, the Philippines, Cambodia and Myanmar. In the U.S., Facebook has consistently ignored or altered its terms of service to the benefit of Trump. Until last week, Twitter did the same thing.”

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Kaplan is seen by a number inside Facebook as having blocked moves to stop polarisation, because the most polarising forces on the site are right-wing ones.
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Trump’s executive order isn’t about Twitter • The Atlantic

Zeynep Tufekci says that Trump is posturing in order to warn Mark Zuckerberg, not Twitter:

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Playing the refs by browbeating them has long been a key move in the right-wing playbook against traditional media. The method is simple: It involves badgering them with accusations of unfairness and bias so that they bend over backwards to accommodate a “both sides” narrative even when the sides were behaving very differently, or when one side was not grounded in fact. Climate-change deniers funded by fossil-fuel companies effectively used this strategy for decades, relying on journalists’ training and instinct to equate objectivity with representing both sides of a story. This way of operating persisted even when one of the sides was mostly bankrolled by the fossil-fuel industry while the other was a near-unanimous consensus of independent experts and academics.

Some right-wing groups quickly adapted that strategy to social media, specifically Facebook and Twitter, which have become outsize gatekeepers in the public sphere, with enormous decision-making power over what gets amplified and what gets buried. For Facebook, that gatekeeper is a single person, Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook’s young CEO is an emperor of information who decides rules of amplification and access to speech for billions of people, simply due to the way ownership of Facebook shares are structured: Zuckerberg personally controls 60% of the voting power. And just like the way people try to get on or advertise on the president’s seemingly favourite TV show, Fox & Friends, merely to reach him, Trump is clearly aiming to send a message to his one-person target.

As long as Facebook and other social-media platforms make money by increasing engagement without much regard to the content they algorithmically amplify, it doesn’t matter whether every last employee is an avowed liberal.

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George Floyd’s brother said Trump “didn’t give me the opportunity to speak” • Buzzfeed News

Clarissa-Jan Lim:

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After days of angry protests across the country over the death of George Floyd, President Donald Trump said he called the Floyd family on Friday. But in an interview Saturday, Philonise Floyd said Trump “didn’t give me the opportunity to even speak” about his brother.

“It was so fast. He didn’t give me the opportunity to even speak. It was hard,” Philonise told Rev. Al Sharpton on MSNBC. “I was trying to talk to him, but he just kept like pushing me off like, ‘I don’t want to hear what you’re talking about.'”

…”Yesterday I spoke to George’s family and expressed the sorrow of our entire nation for their loss,” Trump said. “I stand before you as a friend and ally to every American seeking justice and peace, and I stand before you in firm opposition to anyone exploiting this tragedy to loot, rob, attack, and menace.”

Philonise said he tried to tell Trump about his desire for justice. “I just told him, I want justice. I said that I couldn’t believe that they committed a modern-day lynching in broad daylight,” he said Saturday.

“I love my brother. I’m never going to see him again,” he said, breaking down.

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Remember the row that blew up over Trump phoning the widow of a soldier killed on an operation in Niger? He still can’t express empathy for black people’s deaths.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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