Start Up No.1333: England’s calamitous track-and-trace system, advertising in charts, Zoom goes for encryption, the pandemic rent drop, and more


OK, let’s talk about the new book from Evil Ned Flanders CC-licensed photo by Zach Catanzareti Photo on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Test, track, trick or treat? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

England’s ‘world beating’ system to track coronavirus is anything but • The New York Times

Benjamin Mueller and Jane Bradley:

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In almost three weeks since the start of the system in England, called N.H.S. Test and Trace, some contact tracers have failed to reach a single person, filling their days instead with internet exercise classes and bookshelf organizing.

Some call handlers, scattered in offices and homes far from the people they speak with, have mistakenly tried to send patients in England to testing sites across the sea in Northern Ireland.

And a government minister threatened on a conference call to stop coordinating with local leaders on the virus-tracking system if they spoke publicly about its failings, according to three officials briefed on the call, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

Contact tracing was supposed to be the bridge between lockdown and a vaccine, enabling the government to pinpoint clusters of infections as they emerged and to stop infected people from passing on the virus. Without it, a World Health Organization official said recently, England would be remiss in reopening its economy.

But the system, staffed by thousands of poorly trained and low-paid contact tracers, was rushed out of the gate on May 28 before it was ready, according to interviews with more than a dozen contact tracers, public health officials and local government leaders. At the time, the government was making a barrage of announcements while also trying to douse a scandal involving Mr. Johnson’s most senior aide, who had violated lockdown orders.

…The government has denied that contact tracing was ever stopped, and said that to claim otherwise would be entirely wrong. However, in internal notes mistakenly forwarded to The New York Times in response to questions about why it initially ended contact tracing in March, government officials wrote: “The answer to this is we basically didn’t have the testing capacity.”

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World-beating only in its ineptness. Truly amazing.
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News by the ton: 75 years of US advertising • Benedict Evans

Evans has a truly fascinating tour through how advertising, newspapers, and the internet have shifted over the past 60 years. The most significant part to me seemed to be this:

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There are lots of things going on here, but I would start with the top line: advertising share of GDP started sliding immediately after the Dotcom bubble, had a major step down in the financial crisis and has been suspiciously flat ever since. That decline was very obviously concentrated in print but actually affected TV and radio as well. We think of TV advertising as being pretty much unaffected by the internet so far, but on this data it’s down by 40% as a share of GDP. The economy grew and advertising didn’t get its historic share of that growth.

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The “share of GDP” metric has been a longstanding one, but that decline is noticeable. What’s surely changed is that the pricing bar for advertising has been lowered; in the days of solely radio, billboard and newspapers, the price for getting noticed was a lot higher. Effectively, GDP has gone up, but the cost of advertising has fallen.

The whole thing is well worth reading. Lots of graphs.
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End-to-end encryption update • Zoom Blog

Eric Yuan:

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Since releasing the draft design of Zoom’s end-to-end encryption (E2EE) on May 22, we have engaged with civil liberties organizations, our CISO council, child safety advocates, encryption experts, government representatives, our own users, and others to gather their feedback on this feature. We have also explored new technologies to enable us to offer E2EE to all tiers of users.

Today, Zoom released an updated E2EE design on GitHub. We are also pleased to share that we have identified a path forward that balances the legitimate right of all users to privacy and the safety of users on our platform. This will enable us to offer E2EE as an advanced add-on feature for all of our users around the globe – free and paid – while maintaining the ability to prevent and fight abuse on our platform. 

To make this possible, Free/Basic users seeking access to E2EE will participate in a one-time process that will prompt the user for additional pieces of information, such as verifying a phone number via a text message. Many leading companies perform similar steps on account creation to reduce the mass creation of abusive accounts. We are confident that by implementing risk-based authentication, in combination with our current mix of tools — including our Report a User function — we can continue to prevent and fight abuse.

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Seems reasonable and balanced. Hiring Alex Stamos to oversee security has made a big difference very quickly.
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Why Zoom doesn’t have product/market fit • Use FYI

Hiten Shah:

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Product/market fit, as described by Marc Andreessen, “means being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” It’s a concept that was first developed by Benchmark co-founder and CEO of Wealthfront, Andy Rachleff.

Sean Ellis developed a way to measure product/market fit by calculating the percentage of people who say they’d be very disappointed if they couldn’t use a product anymore. Once 40% or more people say they’d be very disappointed, that product is said to have product/market fit.

I conducted another product/market fit survey back in 2015 on Slack. Back then, Slack had product/market fit: 51% of people said they’d be “very disappointed” if they couldn’t use it anymore.

So where did Zoom net out?

We asked people “How would you feel if you could no longer use Zoom?” To our surprise, only 30% said they’d be very disappointed. That’s 10% away from the product/market fit threshold. And 21% away from Slack’s score back in 2015.

Half of people (49%) said they’d be somewhat disappointed if they could no longer use Zoom. The rest – 21% – said they would not be disappointed (“it really isn’t that useful”).

…The top reason people use Zoom is for work. That’s exactly where Zoom has the lowest product/market fit. Only 32% of those people said “Very Disappointed.” And they made up the majority too, with 89% of people who took the survey saying they used Zoom for work.

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Apparently Sean Ellis is the “coauthor of Hacking Growth”. Never heard of it or him. (Should I have?) I think the answer would be different if people were prevented from using Zoom for a couple of weeks, and then asked if they wanted it back. I think they’d jump on it.
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‘Pandemic pricing’ is here: rents are dropping across the US • CNN

Anna Bahney:

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At the end of May, Ilana Freund landed a deal on an apartment in New York City where she will be attending graduate school. She and her roommate signed a lease on a two-bedroom apartment in the West Village for $4,995 a month. It was a significant discount: Similar apartments in the building were going for around $5,300 before the pandemic took hold, according to the listing agent.

The two roommates were also given one month’s rent free and did not have to pay a broker fee, which typically would have cost them 12% to 15% of the annual rent.

“It has been crazy,” Freund said, “but we definitely got a very good deal.”

“Pandemic pricing,” as some agents call it, has arrived across the country as landlords react to the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. With many people either losing their jobs or working from home due to the shutdowns, many tenants have chosen to leave their apartments behind in major US cities.

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Going to be the start of a trend.
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Bolton’s book says Trump impeachment inquiry missed other troubling actions • The New York Times

Peter Baker:

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Mr. Bolton describes several episodes where the president expressed willingness to halt criminal investigations “to, in effect, give personal favors to dictators he liked,” citing cases involving major firms in China and Turkey. “The pattern looked like obstruction of justice as a way of life, which we couldn’t accept,” Mr. Bolton writes, adding that he reported his concerns to Attorney General William P. Barr.

Mr. Bolton also adds a striking new allegation by saying that Mr. Trump overtly linked trade negotiations to his own political fortunes by asking President Xi Jinping of China to buy a lot of American agricultural products to help him win farm states in this year’s election. Mr. Trump, he writes, was “pleading with Xi to ensure he’d win. He stressed the importance of farmers, and increased Chinese purchases of soybeans and wheat in the electoral outcome.”

The book, “The Room Where It Happened,” was obtained by The New York Times in advance of its scheduled publication next Tuesday and has already become a political lightning rod in the thick of an election campaign and a No. 1 best seller on Amazon.com even before it hits the bookstores.

…Mr. Trump did not seem to know, for example, that Britain is a nuclear power and asked if Finland is part of Russia, Mr. Bolton writes. He came closer to withdrawing the United States from NATO than previously known. Even top advisers who position themselves as unswervingly loyal mock him behind his back. During Mr. Trump’s 2018 meeting with North Korea’s leader, according to the book, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slipped Mr. Bolton a note disparaging the president, saying, “He is so full of shit.”

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Hilariously, the Trump admin is trying to block the publication of a book that has already been printed and distributed. And as for Bolton telling Bill Barr – how stupid is that, exactly, when he had already watched Barr misrepresent the Mueller report to Congress? Did he seriously think Barr was going to take any action, given that he’s perhaps the most corrupt person in the place?

Bolton comes across as a huge moral coward: he would testify to Congress, but only if he was subpoenaed. He wouldn’t stand up and say it in his own right. In the WSJ he says “Had Democratic impeachment advocates not been so obsessed with their Ukraine blitzkrieg in 2019, had they taken the time to inquire more systematically about Trump’s behavior across his entire foreign policy, the impeachment outcome might well have been different.” Who might they have asked, exactly? The White House – that included Bolton – blocked everything.

The Washington Post also has a writeup. Honestly, it could be renamed Streisand Effect.
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Another company is giving up on AR. This time, it’s Bose • Protocol

Janko Roettgers:

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Bose has become the latest company to throw in the towel on immersive computing, shutting down its ambitious Bose AR program. Key Bose AR employees have left the company, and partners have been informed that their apps will stop working in the coming weeks.

“Bose AR didn’t become what we envisioned,” a Bose spokesperson told Protocol. “It’s not the first time our technology couldn’t be commercialized the way we planned, but components of it will be used to help Bose owners in a different way. We’re good with that. Because our research is for them, not us.”

Bose’s change of heart comes as augmented reality startups have struggled across the board. Augmented reality startup Meta AR gave up on plans to replace desktop computing with dedicated AR headsets in late 2018. Last year, both ODG and Daqri shut down. And in April, Magic Leap announced that it was exiting the consumer AR business, laying off 1,000 employees in the process.

Bose had been pursuing a unique approach to augmented reality: Instead of superimposing images over a view of the real world, Bose AR was based on audio alone and provided walking directions, audio-based fitness instructions and games via compatible headphones. The company even built its line of sunglasses with integrated headphones and AR sensors. It now wants to utilize these sensors to simplify the usage of those headphones and glasses.

…The decision to end the program comes as the privately held company faces financial turmoil. Earlier this year, Bose announced that it would close all its retail stores in North America, Europe, Australia and Japan in response to mounting pressure from ecommerce. The closures, which affected 119 stores altogether, resulted in hundreds of layoffs. And in March, news broke that Bose CEO Phil Hess had departed at the beginning of the year. The company has since been led by former CFO Jim Scammon, who assumed the title of president and COO as part of the transition.

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“Audio AR” really was the height of mad ambition. Included a $50m fund to kickstart app development for it. Wonder how much was actually awarded.
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Dear Apple: here’s how to stop the antitrust investigations • Astropad

Savannah Reising:

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Big tech has been in a slow boil. After wild west growth and lawlessness, Silicon Valley is finally getting the scrutiny it’s avoided for years — and it seems that everyone has been feeling disillusionment towards Amazon, Apple, Google, and Facebook. Following our experience of  getting sherlocked (where Apple copied our product and included it as a free OS feature), we’re here to jump in with our own perspective on getting antitrust laws up to speed. 

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The five are, if you don’t want to read the post:
(1) enable users to set default app preferences
(2) open alternate payment mechanisms that don’t require paying 30% or 15% to Apple
(3) allow app sideloading
(4) Give third-party devs equal access to APIs
(5) Stop sherlocking third-party developers. (To “Sherlock” is to add features/apps to the OS which third-party developers were already offering. Like, say, a browser.)

To which I’d say, re antitrust:
1) not relevant
2) Apple’s almost certainly going to be forced to do this in Europe
3) Apple won’t like this, but if it opens payment then won’t have to do it
4) not obliged to do this under competition rules, and won’t
5) you simply cannot tell companies to stop developing their products. That would be a restraint of trade.
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Justice Department proposes limiting internet companies’ protections • WSJ

Brent Kendall and John D. McKinnon:

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Last month, President Trump signed an executive order that sought to target the legal protections of social-media companies, responding to concerns among some conservatives about alleged online censorship by the platforms. The executive order sought to impose limits on legal immunity for social-media companies when they are deemed to unfairly curb users’ speech, for instance by deleting their posts or suspending their accounts. The administration, however, can’t impose many of these changes unilaterally.

The Justice Department’s proposed changes will address the type of speech concerns raised by Mr. Trump, but they also extend more broadly, seeking to strip civil immunity afforded to tech companies in a range of other circumstances if online platforms are complicit in unlawful behavior taking place on their networks, the administration official said.

The department’s proposal, for instance, would remove legal protections when platforms facilitate or solicit third-party content or activity that violates federal criminal law, such as online scams and trafficking in illicit or counterfeit drugs.

Internet companies would lose immunity if they have knowledge that unlawful conduct is taking place on their platforms or show reckless disregard for how users are behaving on their sites. Without those legal protections, tech companies could be exposed to claims for monetary damages from people allegedly harmed by online fraud and other illegal activity.

The department also wouldn’t confer immunity to platforms in instances involving online child exploitation and sexual abuse, terrorism or cyberstalking. Those carve-outs are needed to curtail immunity for internet companies to allow victims to seek redress, the official said.

Attorney General William Barr has repeatedly voiced concerns about online-platform immunity, citing, for example, a terrorism case in which courts ruled Facebook wasn’t civilly liable because its algorithms allegedly matched the Hamas organization with people that supported its cause.

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Barr can propose until he’s blue in the face (which would be fun to watch) but this is going to get nowhere in a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. And it’s hard not to think that these are already somewhere in law. Google was dinged for $500m in 2011 for advertising drugs from Canada in the US. The terrorism case is bonkers – is he going to prosecute the algorithm?
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Signal downloads are way up since the protests began • The New York Times

Amelia Nierenberg:

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The week before George Floyd died on May 25, about 51,000 first-time users downloaded Signal, according to data from the analytics firm Sensor Tower. The following week, as protests grew nationwide, there were 78,000 new downloads. In the first week of June, there were 183,000. (Rani Molla at Recode noted that downloads of Citizen, the community safety app, are also way up.)

Organizers have relied on Signal to devise action plans and develop strategies for handling possible arrests for several years. But as awareness of police monitoring continues to grow, protest attendees are using Signal to communicate with friends while out on the streets. The app uses end-to-end encryption, which means each message is scrambled so that it can only be deciphered by the sender and the intended recipient.

“If you don’t have end-to-end encryption, by definition, there are other parties that can read your messages,” said Joseph Bonneau, an assistant professor of computer science at New York University who has researched cryptography. “That doesn’t mean that they necessarily do, but it usually means that they can and, in particular, depending on what jurisdiction you are in, they can be ordered to by law enforcement.”

…Signal has also already been tested. In 2016, the chat service withstood a subpoena request for its data. The only information it could provide was the date the accounts in question were created and when they had last used Signal. Signal does not store messages or contacts on its servers, so it cannot be forced to give copies of that information to the government.

“Facebook and Twitter feel like standing on the side of the street, just kind of like, yelling,” said Jelani Drew-Davi, a 25-year-old black campaign manager at Kairos, an organization that teaches digital organizing strategies to people of color. “Signal is like taking to someone I want to talk to, and going into a very quiet corner.”

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It was also used by Hillary Clinton’s campaign team (and, for all I know, by Trump’s). They preferred it over email because they’d discovered email could get hacked when the DNC was hit. Little did they know..
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1333: England’s calamitous track-and-trace system, advertising in charts, Zoom goes for encryption, the pandemic rent drop, and more

  1. I don’t understand politics at all, but Bolton’s position strikes me as fundamentally pragmatic. I see him as saying that he thinks Trump should be removed from office – and IF the Establishment was extremely serious about it, then he’d be happy to join the barricades. However, if this isn’t a committed effort, but just a show, he’s not going to immolate himself for the entertainment of the crowd. That’s his point about it being necessary to be subpoenaed. He wants the ability to say that his participation was legally compelled, even if he signals he was willing to be compelled. He’s not a Democrat. He’s a thorough Republican, and he’s willing to go against his own party’s President under certain conditions. But that’s not something he’s going to do for a futile gesture of moralizing. He’s a war-monger, not an opinion columnist.

    It’s too simplistic a framework where anyone who supports an idea is supposed to be willing to pay any price, bear any burden, for the slimmest chance to advance it. Very few people are good martyrs like that.

    Also, the legal fight over the book is not necessarily for the goal of suppressing its content itself. Rather, it can be for raising the costs of doing this type of revelation, as a warning to the NEXT person who considers doing something similar in the future.

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