Start Up No.1352: more on Facebook’s pseudoscience ads, TikTok as warfare, the trouble with VC money, Google’s ATAP lives!, and more

UK networks have been told by the government to remove these pieces. Very, very slowly. CC-licensed photo by Christoph Scholz on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How to fight health ‘cures’ online • The New York Times

Shira Ovide:


Stories like [Anne Borden King’s, featured here yesterday after she got pseudoscience junk ads on Facebook after posting about her cancer diagnosis] feel distressingly familiar. Internet grifters looking to make money have been responsible for spreading false vaccine conspiracies online or selling illegal drugs. And because our health is a perennial anxiety, there’s a big market for false hope.

“You can’t get rid of the impetus for pseudoscience, but you can stop a lot of vulnerable people from being exploited,” Borden said.

First, let’s discuss what Facebook can do to stop this. “Only take as many ads as they have time for humans for review,” Borden said. “That’s the only ethical thing they can do.”

This one is a doozy. Advertising online tends to be more automated than it is for TV or newspapers. Facebook and Google do have people and computer systems to weed out some inappropriate ads, but many are purchased without much human intervention.

Borden is essentially saying that automated advertising is too risky, at least for health-related products.

A Facebook spokeswoman said that the company rejected ads with claims that fact checkers rated as false, and that it didn’t “allow ads claiming to cure incurable diseases.”

Like many proposed fixes for our popular internet hangouts, Borden’s suggestion boils down to making social media more like conventional media. That’s what critics of Facebook or other online companies mean when they say that these companies should add context to politicians’ inflammatory statements posted on their sites, or that they shouldn’t be a forum for all ideas.


I’d been in touch with Borden King yesterday (for a book I’m working on) – she’s clearly had a busy time. The extent of the pseudoscience exploitation, and the length of time it’s been going on, is just staggering. And in her words to me, “Facebook is the worst.”
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The TikTok war • Stratechery

Ben Thompson:


[TikTok] censored #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd, blocked a teenager discussing China’s genocide in Xinjiang, and blocked a video of Tank Man. The Guardian published TikTok guidelines that censored Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, and the Falun Gong, and I myself demonstrated that TikTok appeared to be censoring the Hong Kong protests and Houston Rockets basketball team.

The point, though, is not just censorship, but its inverse: propaganda. TikTok’s algorithm, unmoored from the constraints of your social network or professional content creators, is free to promote whatever videos it likes, without anyone knowing the difference. TikTok could promote a particular candidate or a particular issue in a particular geography, without anyone — except perhaps the candidate, now indebted to a Chinese company — knowing. You may be skeptical this might happen, but again, China has already demonstrated a willingness to censor speech on a platform banned in China; how much of a leap is it to think that a Party committed to ideological dominance will forever leave a route directly into the hearts and minds of millions of Americans untouched?

Again, this is where it is worth taking China seriously: the Party has shown through its actions, particularly building and maintaining the Great Firewall at tremendous expense, that it believes in the power of information and ideas. Countless speeches, from Chairman Xi and others, have stated that the Party believes it is in an ideological war with liberalism generally and the U.S. specifically. If we are to give China’s leaders the respect of believing what they say, instead of projecting our own beliefs for no reason other than our own solipsism, how can we take that chance?


Ben’s position on this is entirely reasonable and well-argued, though there’s also the corollary: Facebook will promote adverts by politicians for free if there’s a lot of engagement. Is that also propaganda?
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Why venture capital doesn’t build the things we really need • MIT Technology Review

Elizabeth MacBride:


it has become clearer that things many people thought about life in America aren’t true. The nation wasn’t ready for a pandemic. It hasn’t made much progress on providing justice for all, as the riots provoked by police brutality in late May reminded us. And it is hard to claim that it remains the world’s most innovative economy. Software and technology are only one corner of the innovation playground, and the US has been so focused on the noisy kids in the sandbox that it has failed to maintain the rest of the equipment. 

People who really study innovation systems “realize that venture capital may not be a perfect model” for all of them, says Carol Dahl, executive director of the Lemelson Foundation, which supports inventors and entrepreneurs building physical products.

In the United States, she says, 75% of venture capital goes to software. Some 5 to 10% goes to biotech: a tiny handful of venture capitalists have mastered the longer art of building a biotech company. The other sliver goes to everything else—“transportation, sanitation, health care.” To fund a complete system of innovation, we need to think about “not only the downstream invention itself, but what preceded it,” Dahl says. “Not only inspiring people who want to invent, but thinking about the way products reach us through companies.”

Dahl told me about a company that had developed reusable protective gear when Ebola emerged, and was now slowly ramping up production. What if it had been supported by venture funds earlier on?

That’s not going to happen, Asheem Chandna, a partner at Greylock, a leading VC firm, told me: “Money is going to flow where returns are. If software continues to have returns, that’s where it will flow.” Even with targeted government subsidies that lower the risks for VCs, he said, most people will stick with what they know.


Big deep dive, but the real lesson is that VCs simply don’t have diverse enough lives to understand where the opportunities are.
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China malware: sorry, techno geeks, there still is no place to hide • China Law Blog

Steve Dickinson:


In The Chinese Government is Accessing YOUR Network Through the Backdoor and There Still is NO Place to Hide, I explained how Chinese banks are requiring their account holders to install malware which allows the Chinese government to see All account holder data — financial or otherwise. We received the usual set of comments we get whenever we right about the lack of data protection in China:

• There are those who ask why we write about China’s lack of data protection when “every country does the same thing.” First off, this is a blog about China. Second, not every country does the same thing. Third, your data in China goes to the Chinese government, not to Facebook or to Google and last we looked, neither Facebook nor Google have virtually unlimited power to imprison you.

• There are those who ask why we write about China’s lack of data protection when there isn’t anything anyone can do about it and would not we all (including YOUR law firm) be better off just keeping our mouths shut. Yes, we would all be better keeping our mouths shut and just acting like this is not a problem and continuing to encourage companies to go into China strictly for the money. But that is just not how we roll.

• You are international lawyers, not data security specialists and you just don’t know all the easy workarounds out there that will enable you to have a China bank account and give no data to the Chinese government. I will address these comments in this post


Quite wild that the Chinese government installs malware. And it’s dramatic malware too which does an end-run around Windows user protection.
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Inside Google’s secretive ATAP research lab • Fast Company

Harry McCracken:


From Samsung’s “Air View” feature to the Leap Motion controller, various approaches to interacting with a screen without touching it have been around for years. But ATAP director of engineering Ivan Poupyrev and head of design Leo Giusti—who spearhead Jacquard as well as Soli—took a fresh look at the challenge of interpreting such gestures. The goal was to create something that was intuitive, power-efficient, capable of working in the dark, and (by not using a camera) privacy-minded. The enabling technology they settled on: radar.

If Google had required Soli to prove its worth in two years, it might never have emerged from the lab. It was “a little insane to say we are going to put radar—60 gigahertz radar!—onto a chip,” Kaufman says. And even if ATAP did manage the feat, that was a long way from being able to suss out specific gestures being made by a human being.

“We spent the first years exploring this new material that is the electromagnetic spectrum,” says Giusti. “We really didn’t think about use cases at the very beginning. So it’s kind of different from a normal product development cycle. This was truly research and development.”

Once the Soli team was ready to consider specific real-world scenarios, it envisioned using Soli in smartwatches, where screens are dinky and traditional touch input can be tough to pull off. “We just needed a target,” says Poupyrev. “And we focused a lot on small gestures and fine finger motions, just to [be] super aggressive.” Eventually, the researchers began experimenting with the technology’s possibilities in smartphones—though at first, the requisite technology ate up so much internal space that an early prototype had no room for a camera.

After multiple iterations, ATAP had a Soli chip that looks tiny even when sitting next to a pushpin. That’s what went into the Pixel 4 to enable its Motion Sense features.


Which, I’m guessing, pretty much nobody uses. It’s the biannual visit to ATAP. Google’s obsession with having wild and crazy hardware is really strange, given how little hardware it offers, or sells. One of the ideas mentioned here – shouldn’t your Google Home know to wait until you’re back in the room to say the cooking timer’s finished? – sounds smart. Then you realise you could just do it with a phone or a smartwatch. I’m not sure they’re asking the right questions.
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Huawei decision ‘may delay 5G by three years and cost UK £7bn’ • The Guardian

Dan Sabbagh:


Matthew Howett, the founder of the research firm Assembly, said: “Mobile phone operators have so far cherry-picked the major urban areas to deploy 5G, but changing the rules now will mean delays for the rest of the country.”

Previous research conducted by Assembly on behalf of the telecoms firms BT, Vodafone, O2 and Three, concluded the UK would suffer an economic hit of £6.8bn from not deploying 5G and risk falling behind continental Europe.

“We also thought it would set the UK back 18 to 24 months, but [UK culture secretary Oliver] Dowden went further and said it would be three years,” Howett said. “Anywhere where coverage is already poor is now going to have to wait longer.”

However, BT said that despite “logistical and cost implications”, it thought it could continue “without a significant impact on the timescales we’ve previously announced”.

After Dowden said it would cost mobile phone companies an extra £2bn, a source at one of the major operators said that would inevitably have a knock-on impact on the already fragile economics of rural communications.

Dowden was responding to a decision made by the Trump administration in May to ban Huawei from using US microchips, which meant the UK could no longer be confident the Chinese company’s technology did not pose a security risk.

One Whitehall official described the US sanctions as “a game changer”, while another said Britain had been surprised by how draconian they were. “This was at the harder end of expectations,” they said.

The prime minister has become embroiled in an intense geopolitical row over Huawei, in which Trump has demanded the Chinese company be kicked out of the UK, claiming it poses a long-term security risk.


The mobile operators are also saying it will slow down the deployment of 5G in rural areas. Speaking as someone in a rural area, I’d be happy for them just to get the 4G deployment solid.
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Why is a tech executive installing security cameras around San Francisco? • The New York Times

Nellie Bowles:


[Chris Larsen’s] apartment on Russian Hill has a trophy view of San Francisco Bay and the tight curves of Lombard Street. But also: the crews coming in to rob tourists’ cars, right in the middle of the day. Mr. Larsen watches the police drive by, and the criminals arriving 15 seconds later, smashing the vehicles’ windows and stealing luggage.

“They don’t care at all — they don’t care if they’re being seen,” Mr. Larsen said. “It’s brazen.”

His father-in-law’s car was robbed. Mr. Larsen’s own car windows were smashed. When a group of men climbed into his garden and one of them cut the wires on his home security system, while his children were sleeping inside, Mr. Larsen decided that he had had enough.

…Here is what he is doing: Writing checks for nearly $4m to buy cameras that record high-definition video of the streets and paying to have them maintained by a company called Applied Video Solutions The rest is up to locals in neighborhood coalitions like Community Benefit Districts, nonprofits formed to provide services to the area.

Here is how the project works. Neighbors band together and decide where to put the cameras. They are installed on private property at the discretion of the property owner, and in San Francisco many home and business owners want them. The footage is monitored by the neighborhood coalition. The cameras are always recording.

The cameras are not hidden. Mr. Larsen believes they can serve as both deterrent and aid in investigations, but it is difficult to say how effective they have been in reducing overall crime.


Too early to say. The initial finding seems to be that cameras installed on one block then push crime a few blocks away. Not quite a solution, but a very common experience.
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Google steers users to YouTube over rivals • WSJ

Sam Schechner, Kirsten Grind and John West:


When choosing the best video clips to promote from around the web, Alphabet’s Google gives a secret advantage to one source in particular: itself.

Or, more specifically, its giant online-video service, YouTube.

Take a clip of basketball star Zion Williamson that the National Basketball Association posted online in January, when he made his highly anticipated pro debut. The clip was popular on Facebook, drawing more than one million views and nearly 900 comments as of March. A nearly identical YouTube version of the clip with the same title was seen about 182,000 times and garnered fewer than 400 comments.

But when The Wall Street Journal’s automated bots searched Google for the clip’s title, the YouTube version featured much more prominently than the Facebook version.

The Journal conducted Google searches for a selection of other videos and channels that are available on YouTube as well as on competitors’ platforms. The YouTube versions were significantly more prominent in the results in the vast majority of cases.

This isn’t by accident. Engineers at Google have made changes that effectively preference YouTube over other video sources, according to people familiar with the matter. Google executives in recent years made decisions to prioritize YouTube on the first page of search results, in part to drive traffic to YouTube rather than to competitors, and also to give YouTube more leverage in business deals with content providers seeking traffic for their videos, one of those people said.

“All else being equal, YouTube will be first,” the person said.


Welcome to 2008! Google has been doing this sort of thing for more than a decade.
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Bitcoin is more like ham radio than the early internet • Moneyness

JP Koning:


Bitcoin and ham radio are quite similar. They are both clunky and old-fangled. Neither technology is particularly easy to use relative to more mainstream options: ham radio’s user experience is trumped by Whatsapp’s, and Zelle is smoother to use than bitcoin. Go to Youtube an you’ll find thousands of videos explaining how each technology works.

The very feature that makes both ham and bitcoin so confusing is also its strength. They are both decentralized. That is, neither relies on a single omnipresent service provider. Rather, the actual user is 100% in charge of operating the tool. No account necessary. This lack of a gate keeper means that there is no one to soften the user experience. It also means that no one can be excluded from broadcasting a radio message, or transferring some bitcoins. That’s a neat feature.

The ham radio community seems to be quite comfortable with its nicheness. Ham radio operators don’t huddle together and talk about “overthrowing the totalitarian system of smart phones” or “displacing evil email.” There is no ham radio fixes this meme on twitter.

And no wonder. If ham radio were to have gone mainstream by 2025, it would only be because some sort of massive natural disaster, say a meteor strike, has crippled all other forms of communication. No sane ham radio operator would wish this sort of doom scenario on the world.


That’s a good way to think of it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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