Start Up No.1329: Biden attacks Facebook, Snap adds mini-apps, the trouble with peer review, racial discrimination by country, and more

There’s an easier way to anonymise your photos if you’re protesting. Using machine learning! CC-licensed photo by See-ming Lee on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Yet another week done. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Biden prepares attack on Facebook’s speech policies • The New York Times

Ceclia Kang:


The Biden presidential campaign, emboldened by a recent surge in support, is going after a new target: Facebook.

After months of privately battling the tech giant over President Trump’s free rein on its social network, the campaign will begin urging its millions of supporters to demand that Facebook strengthen its rules against misinformation and to hold politicians accountable for harmful comments.

On Thursday, the campaign will circulate a petition and an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, to change the company’s hands-off approach to political speech. The petition will be sent to millions of supporters on its email and text message lists and through social media, including Facebook, imploring them to sign the letter. The campaign will also release a video this week to be shared across social media to explain the issue.

“Real changes to Facebook’s policies for their platform and how they enforce them are necessary to protect against a repeat of the role that disinformation played in the 2016 election and that continues to threaten our democracy today,” said Bill Russo, a spokesman for the Biden campaign.

The move puts the Biden camp in the center of a raging debate about the role and responsibility of tech platforms. Civil rights leaders, Democratic lawmakers and many of Facebook’s own employees say that big tech companies have a responsibility to prevent false and hateful information from being shared widely.

…The open letter being sent on Thursday will say that “Trump and his allies have used Facebook to spread fear and misleading information about voting, attempting to compromise the means of holding power to account: our voices and our ballot boxes.”

It calls on the company to take several steps to limit misinformation and hateful language on the site, including making clear rules “that prohibit threatening behavior and lies about how to participate in the election.”


Game very definitely on.
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Chris Cox returns to the fold as Facebook’s chief product officer • TechCrunch

Taylor Hatmaker:


After a very high-profile departure and a year away from the company, Facebook’s former chief product officer Chris Cox will return to his long-held position with the company.

Cox shared the news Thursday in a Facebook post with a photo of his company badge. Elaborating on his return to Facebook, Cox explained that the unique national and global climate of 2020 influenced his decision, particularly the coronavirus pandemic, its subsequent economic devastation and the nation’s current focus on “a reckoning of racial injustice.”

“Like many of you, I’ve been thinking hard about what I can do for our families and communities today, and for the world our children will live in tomorrow,” Cox wrote.

“Facebook and our products have never been more relevant to our future. It’s the place I know best, it’s a place I’ve helped to build, and it’s the best place for me to roll up my sleeves and dig in to help.”


There were rumours that he and Zuckerberg had a serious row over Zuckerberg’s plan to encrypt more content. Cox feels like a counterbalance to Zuckerberg’s position on content. Expect the discussion over what to do with political content to intensify.
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Snap announces Minis to bring other apps into Snapchat • The Verge

Casey Newton:


Snap today announced Minis, a suite of miniature applications made by third-party developers that run inside of Snapchat. Minis are built using HTML and enable a range of experiences from meditating alone to buying movie tickets with friends. Minis, which are integrated into the chat window on Snapchat, were one of several new features announced today at Snap’s virtual Partner Summit.

The existence of Minis was first reported last month by The Information, which likened them to the mini programs that have turned WeChat into one of the most popular apps in China. The programs — which let users buy food, pay their bills, and complete other tasks — generated $113bn for WeChat last year, up 160% from the year prior, The Information reported. The company takes a cut of purchases made through the app.

Snap announced seven Minis to start. They include an app to coordinate your schedule at the next Coachella music festival; a mini version of Headspace to meditate and send encouraging messages to friends; Movie Tickets by Atom for choosing showtimes, picking seats, and buying tickets; and Tembo, which lets students create flash card decks for studying.

In an interview with The Verge, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel said Minis would help the company extend its reach to include e-commerce, with more social shopping experiences that let friends browse together. “Let’s say you’re getting ready with your friends, or your school dance is two weeks from now — you can actually shop together with your friends, which I think could be a really fun experience,” Spiegel said.


The Information writeup was typically stodgy, so I didn’t twig this. It’s a big move – though the HTML nature of it reminds me of Apple’s “Dashboard widgets” from 2005, which were HTML+CSS+Javascript packages that could do limited functions. Everything old is new again.
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Critical lessons from last week’s retraction of two COVID-19 papers • MedPage Today

Milton Packer on, yes, the Surgisphere screwup:


What do we need to do now? The two COVID-19 paper retractions represent a real opportunity for us to reinvent peer review. We needed to do so before the pandemic; we desperately need to do so now. We must implement changes that will provide confidence in the validity of published work, and we need to revamp and strengthen the peer-review and editorial decision-making processes. The FDA imposes severe penalties on site investigators who submit fabricated data; many journal editors follow a similar policy. Fear of a potentially career-ending ban on publications in leading journals will certainly motivate most corresponding authors to perform the exceptionally high level of due diligence that is needed to restore the trust that the review process desperately depends on.

If academic medicine does not make these changes, then we only have ourselves to blame when the credibility of medical research in the public’s view crumbles.


Most of his annoyance is at the failings of peer review, which certainly looks a bit shaky just at the moment. Is Surgisphere the exception, or the tip of an iceberg?
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Anonymous Camera is a new app that uses AI to quickly anonymize photos and videos • The Verge

James Vincent:


with the help of advances in machine learning, it’s also easier than ever to anonymize photos and videos, removing information that would otherwise identify people.

The latest example of this is a new camera app called Anonymous Camera, that launches on the iOS App Store today. It’s the work of London AI startup Playground, whose founders built the app with the help of investigative journalists who wanted an easy way to record anonymous footage. Although it’s no silver bullet for privacy, Anonymous Camera offers the most comprehensive and easy-to-use features we’ve seen in an app of its kind.

Anonymous Camera uses machine learning to identify people in images and videos and then blur, pixelate, or block out entirely faces or whole bodies. Being able to block out feature altogether is important, as some blurring and pixelation methods can be reversed, and individuals can often be identified not just by their faces but by their clothing, tattoos, and other identifying markers.

The app can also distort voices in videos and strips any metadata that’s automatically embedded in files by cameras and phones. That includes the time a photo or video was taken and, depending on your privacy settings, where it was taken. Even if you anonymize individuals in photos, this information can reveal a lot, whether it’s shared accidentally online or retrieved later when a device is analyzed.


Because it’s not as if the police in the US or the UK have scrapped the facial recognition systems they bought.
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Do some countries discriminate by race in hiring more than others? • Sociological Science

Lincoln Quillian et al:


Evidence from 97 field experiments of racial discrimination in hiring…

In every country we consider, nonwhite applicants suffer significant disadvantage in receiving callbacks for interviews compared with white natives with similar job- relevant characteristics. This difference is driven by race, not immigrant status; our measures of native versus immigrant place of birth are not significant in predicting discrimination. White immigrants (and their descendants) are also disadvantaged relative to white natives but less so than nonwhites, and the difference between white immigrants and white natives is often small and statistically insignificant.


There’s lots of detail in this PDF. For the TL;DR just scroll to the graph on p483 (don’t worry, it starts at p467). It’s quite the eye-opener. The countries investigated: the US, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, UK, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden. See if you can guess which comes out “most racist” of those.
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Microsoft pledges not to sell facial-recognition tools to police absent national rules • WSJ

Asa Fitch:


Microsoft won’t sell facial-recognition technology to U.S. police until there is a national law regulating its use, the company’s President Brad Smith said Thursday.

Microsoft joined other big tech names including Inc. and International Business Machines Corp. to call for clearer rules around the surveillance technology amid widespread concern about its potential for racial bias.

The issue has attracted greater attention amid growing outcry about police brutality and what many see as institutionalized racism in law enforcement, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a black man, in police custody.

Microsoft has long taken a careful stance on facial recognition, putting self-imposed curbs on its sales of the technology to law enforcement. As a result of those limits, Mr. Smith said during a Washington Post event that the company wasn’t currently selling facial recognition to police in the U.S.

“We’ve decided that we will not sell facial-recognition technology to police departments in the United States until we have a national law in place, grounded in human rights, that will govern this technology,” he said.


Technology companies discovering an interest in human rights. It’s quite a thing to watch.
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Used EV batteries could store energy from solar farms • IEEE Spectrum

Mark Anderson:


As the number of electric vehicles on the world’s roads multiplies, a variety of used EV batteries will inevitably come into the marketplace. This, says a team of MIT researchers, could provide a golden opportunity for solar energy: Grid-scale renewable energy storage. This application, they find, can run efficiently on batteries that aren’t quite up to snuff for your Tesla or Chevy Bolt.

There are now two million solar energy installations in the United States alone. This number, according to Wood Mackenzie and the Solar Energy Industries Association, is expected to grow to three million next year and to four million by 2023. Yet such installations can only generate electrons when the sun is shining, which means plenty of solar power will be available during daytime hours, with a dearth of power on cloudy days or at night.

In other words, as solar (and wind) power expands, the need for energy storage only ramps up, says Ian Mathews, Marie Curie research fellow formerly at MIT (now at Tyndall National Institute in Cork, Ireland).

“As you increase the penetration of solar energy on the grid, you need to start to do something to deal with the fact that solar energy produces a lot during the middle of the day,” Mathews said. “But often you want to meet loads later in the day. And obviously lithium-ion batteries are getting a lot of attention in this area—and are being deployed quite widely.”


Makes a whole boatload of sense. Though you might then need to improve the security around those solar farms a lot because those batteries would be valuable in all sorts of ways.
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Trump Solo • The New Yorker

Mark Singer:


Of course, the “comeback” Trump is much the same as the Trump of the eighties; there is no “new” Trump, just as there was never a “new” Nixon. Rather, all along there have been several Trumps: the hyperbole addict who prevaricates for fun and profit; the knowledgeable builder whose associates profess awe at his attention to detail; the narcissist whose self-absorption doesn’t account for his dead-on ability to exploit other people’s weaknesses; the perpetual seventeen-year-old who lives in a zero-sum world of winners and “total losers,” loyal friends and “complete scumbags”; the insatiable publicity hound who courts the press on a daily basis and, when he doesn’t like what he reads, attacks the messengers as “human garbage”; the chairman and largest stockholder of a billion-dollar public corporation who seems unable to resist heralding overly optimistic earnings projections, which then fail to materialize, thereby eroding the value of his investment—in sum, a fellow both slippery and naïve, artfully calculating and recklessly heedless of consequences.


A long, beautifully detailed, skewering profile. Before you read it, try to guess what year the above paragraph (and the rest of the profile) was written.
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America is losing the stomach to fight Covid-19 • Financial Times

Edward Luce:


A few weeks ago Europe was far ahead of the US in terms of mortality rates. They have now switched places. America continues to lose about 1,000 people a day — and in some states that are relaxing social distancing rules, infection and hospitalisation rates are rising.

This week Berkeley scientists estimated the US had prevented 60m infections by taking early lockdown measures. That is roughly 250,000 deaths that did not happen. The period the scientists analysed was up to April 6, which implies many more lives have been saved since then.

That discipline is now dissolving. Mr Trump will restart his re-election campaign next week with a full-blown rally in Oklahoma — his first since early March. That will give a green light for Americans to crowd together again without censure.

Las Vegas is broadcasting even starker images. Its slot machines are ringing again. To judge by the footage, most punters are not wearing masks. Forget war. Going for the jackpot is a more fitting metaphor for America’s coming pandemic summer.

As scientists keep reminding us, the virus respects no boundaries. Unfortunately that applies as much to the Black Lives Matter protests as it does to armed paramilitaries crowding their state capitals. This has blunted the Democratic party’s ability to criticise Mr Trump for filling the stadiums, as he is likely to do next week.

Covid-19 does not distinguish between decent people and white nationalists. In a deeply polarised nation, ideology beats science.

So what is likely to happen? The most likely outcome is a second coronavirus wave in the coming months. Many assume the virus goes quiet when the temperature rises. There is no scientific consensus on this.


The daily toll of coronavirus deaths will become in the US a sort of background noise, like school shootings, that everyone in the rest of the world is shocked by.
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Apple pulls podcast apps in China after government pressure • The Verge

Sam Byford:


Apple has removed Pocket Casts, the popular iOS and Android podcast client, from the App Store in China. The Cyberspace Administration of China has determined that it can be used to access content deemed illegal in the country, and has demanded that Apple remove the app as a result. It’s the second major podcast app to be removed from China’s App Store this month.

“We believe podcasting is and should remain an open medium, free of government censorship,” Pocket Casts says in a statement posted to Twitter. “As such we won’t be censoring podcast content at their request. We understand this means that it’s unlikely that our iOS App will be available in China, but feel it’s a necessary step to take for any company that values the open distribution model that makes podcasting special.”

Pocket Casts tells The Verge that Apple didn’t provide specifics on which content violated Chinese law upon request, instead suggesting that the team reach out to the Cyberspace Administration of China directly. The app was removed around two days after Apple contacted the developer. China represented its seventh biggest market, Pocket Casts says, and it was considered to be growing.


“Content deemed illegal in the country”. Ben Thompson has a long analysis (subscriber-only) which suggests that Apple’s Podcasts app in China is tuned, unlike Podcasts outside China, only to allow feed URLs from iTunes, which the Chinese government monitors. If Pocket Casts let you add a random feed URL, you might get across the Great Firewall.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1329: Biden attacks Facebook, Snap adds mini-apps, the trouble with peer review, racial discrimination by country, and more

  1. It’s tough to have any sympathy for a billionaire oligarch, but it’s not fun to be Zuckerberg now. I can just see how this will never stop. If he doesn’t do anything, he’s going to be denounced as an enabler of fascism. But if he gives an inch, it’s going to be endless miles of political battleground – “why did you find X to be a violation, and not Y – you are *biased*”. In the near future, I fully expect to see serious arguments from part of the chattering class contending that the modern Republican party is built on racism, misogyny, xenophobia, etc, therefore any campaign material for it is an implicit threat which makes people unsafe, thus it _per se_ violates Facebook’s terms of service.

    Maybe Facebook will end up fissioning into Facebook-Red and Facebook-Blue. Both owned by Zuckerberg, of course. But following different media algorithms. Somewhat like megacorporations which have different product brands.

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