Start Up No.1357: how Britain turned blind eye to Russian interference, our Covid future, Microsoft disses the App Store, and more

Need to buy a parrot? In Bangladesh, you’ll start looking on Facebook, where F-commerce happens. CC-licensed photo by Peter Miller on Flickr.

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

Russia report reveals UK government failed to investigate Kremlin interference • The Guardian

Dan Sabbagh:


The British government and intelligence agencies failed to conduct any proper assessment of Kremlin attempts to interfere with the 2016 Brexit referendum, according to the long-delayed Russia report.

The damning conclusion is contained within the 50-page document from parliament’s intelligence and security committee, which said ministers in effect turned a blind eye to allegations of Russian disruption. It said the government “had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes” at the time, and it made clear that no serious effort was made to do so.

“The report reveals that no one in government knew if Russia interfered in or sought to influence the referendum because they did not want to know,” said Stewart Hosie, a Scottish National party MP who sits on the cross-party committee. “The UK Government have actively avoided looking for evidence that Russia interfered. We were told that they hadn’t seen any evidence, but that is meaningless if they hadn’t looked for it.”

The committee, which scrutinises the work of Britain’s spy agencies, said: “We have not been provided with any post-referendum assessment of Russian attempts at interference”. It contrasted the response with that of the US.

…Committee members noted that publicly available studies have pointed to “the preponderance of pro-Brexit or anti-EU stories” on the Russia Today and Sputnik TV channels at the time of the vote, and “the use of ‘bots’ and ‘trolls’” on Twitter, as evidence of Russian attempts to influence the process.

There was “credible open source commentary” that Russia undertook “influence campaigns” relating to the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, but despite this, no effort was made to look at the Kremlin threat to British democracy until after the Brexit vote.

It was only after Russia hacked US Democratic party emails in July 2016 that any assessment appeared to have been made – and the document suggests that some sort of exercise was conducted after the 2017 general election.


The indifference – because Russian donors were funnelling so much money into the Tory party coffers – is utterly disgraceful. It’s also corrupt. Money corrupts everything, but it corrupts politics before anything else.
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Coronavirus: harmful lies spread easily due to lack of UK law • BBC News

Marianna Spring, disinformation reporter:


Misleading and harmful online content about Covid-19 has spread “virulently” because the UK still lacks a law to regulate social media, an influential group of MPs has said.

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee urged the government to publish a draft copy of promised legislation by the autumn.

It follows suggestions the Online Harms Bill might not be in force until 2024.

The group’s chairman said tech firms could not be left to self-regulate. “We still haven’t seen correct legislative architecture put in place, and we are still relying on social media companies’ consciences,” said Julian Knight. “This just is not good enough. Our legislation is not in any way fit for purpose, and we’re still waiting. What I’ve seen so far has just been quite a lot of delay.”

Google and Facebook have said they have invested in measures to tackle posts that breach their guidelines. But the report has already been welcomed by the children’s charity NSPCC.

“The committee is right to be concerned about the pace of legislation and whether the regulator will have the teeth it needs,” said Andy Burrows, its head of child safety online policy.


The government has made noises about “online harms” for years. But does nothing about it.
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Covid could become the new common cold • UnHerd

Tom Chivers:


Babak Javid, a professor of immunology at the University of California San Francisco says that “the only definitive data we have with immunity and coronaviruses” comes from studies from a few decades ago, so-called “human challenge” studies, in which people were deliberately given the common cold and then their immune responses were tracked. 

Crucially, they found that if patients had detectable levels of antibodies before they were given the virus, they were immune. But, as you’d expect, people who didn’t have the antibodies got a cold — and then developed antibodies. The studies found, as with the current coronavirus, that the number of antibodies in the bloodstream then tailed off rapidly. 

A year later, the scientists tried infecting them again. They “were virologically affected”, says Javid – that is, if you swabbed them and tested for a virus, you would find it — but “they had no symptoms whatsoever, even in people with no antibody response”. The period in which they were themselves infectious appears to have been much shorter, as well.

Part of what’s going on here is that antibodies are only part of your body’s immune response to infection.


There’s plenty more, and you’ll learn a lot about immune responses, and a good simile for why you want high thresholds for false positives. Very informative, which is more than you can say about many articles on this topic.
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In Bangladesh, everything is bought and sold through Facebook • Rest of World

Nilesh Christopher:


After most of the management classes Kabir taught at a university in Dhaka were canceled or moved online, he suddenly had plenty of time to focus on his passion project: becoming a part-time bird breeder. Sitting in his three-bedroom apartment one day, Kabir keyed in the phrase “Buy-sell birds Dhaka” on Facebook and joined about half a dozen groups dedicated to avian retail.

“Breeding pair. Age: 20 days. Contact by phone or inbox” read one post, alongside images of a pair of grayish-brown cockatiels. Another seller, located in the Kallyanpur neighborhood in Dhaka, posted pictures of yellow-feathered lutino cockatiels, with the Bengali phrase hat bodol hobe — which loosely translates as “to change hands.” The wording was intended to circumvent a Facebook algorithm that, to prevent wildlife trafficking, automatically takes down posts with “buy” or “sell” in the description. If an interested buyer did contact an owner, the next step was to haggle over the price of the bird on Facebook Messenger.

Kabir bought his first pair of birds from the 3,000-person Facebook group A.S.ককাটেল পাখি হাত বদল — “A.S. Cockatiel changes hands.” For that purchase, the seller delivered the birds in person to collect them, and Kabir paid in cash. He was so pleased with his decision that he bought 24 more pairs over the next two weeks, including breeds such as Gouldian finches, Bengalese finches, and crested Bengalese finches. Each pair cost anywhere between $15 and $60, depending upon the breed and its age. “At one point, I started running out of space to accommodate all the birds, and sent about half a dozen Bengalese finches, along with some Gouldians, to my fiancee’s place,” he recalled. Finally, he gave in and bought a large birdcage.

From discovery to delivery, this whole process happened on Facebook.


Evading Facebook algorithms; and the whole space of “F-commerce” – Facebook commerce.
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Microsoft president raised Apple issues to House Antitrust group • Bloomberg

Dina Bass:


Microsoft Corp. President Brad Smith raised concerns to U.S. lawmakers about what the company regards as Apple Inc.’s anti-competitive behavior around its app store, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Smith, who is also chief legal officer, was invited by the House of Representatives’s antitrust subcommittee to share his experiences around Microsoft’s own antitrust battle with the U.S. government in the late 1990s. During the conversation, which occurred weeks ago, he discussed the company’s issue with Apple, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the discussion was private.

The House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee will hold a hearing with the CEOs of Apple, Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google-parent Alphabet Inc. on July 27. A Microsoft spokesperson declined to comment Monday.

Smith said last month that regulators should examine app store rules, which he called a far higher barrier to fair competition than Microsoft’s Windows operating software when it was found guilty of antitrust violations 20 years ago. While Smith didn’t name Apple in that public interview, a Microsoft spokesperson said later the executive was referring to the iPhone maker.


Wonder what Microsoft is trying to get out of this. A smaller cut on iOS sales, at a guess.
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3D Book Image CSS Generator

Sebastien Castiel created this neat little page which generates a CSS-only animation of a book – any book. Grab an image and URL from Amazon and away you go. Very neat.
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China may retaliate against Nokia and Ericsson if EU countries move to ban Huawei • WSJ

Liza Lin, Stu Woo and Lingling Wei:


China’s Ministry of Commerce is mulling export controls that would prevent Nokia and Ericsson from sending products it makes in China to other countries, the people said. One person added that this was a worst-case scenario that Beijing would use only if European countries came down hard on Chinese suppliers and banned them from their 5G networks.

Last week, the U.K., which left the EU earlier this year, ordered its wireless carriers to stop buying Huawei 5G equipment by the end of 2020 and to remove Huawei 5G equipment from its networks by the end of 2027.

The EU hasn’t banned Huawei, but took a softer stance in January by releasing 5G cybersecurity recommendations that member states could voluntarily adopt to restrict Huawei’s presence in each country. It is expected to soon publish a report detailing how its 27 member states have adopted them.

The EU’s biggest country, Germany, isn’t expected to decide whether to bar Huawei from its 5G networks until September at the earliest.

The Chinese Commerce Ministry said last Thursday that the country will take necessary measures to protect the legitimate rights of Chinese companies, in response to a recent ban on Huawei by the British government. The ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment on Monday.

“This kind of action could backfire by frightening some foreign tech companies into moving manufacturing out of China,” said Jim McGregor, the Greater China chairman of advisory and advocacy consulting firm APCO Worldwide.


China isn’t a big market for Nokia or Ericsson; this will just accelerate any plans they might have had to move manufacturing out of China, and it’s also going to make other companies think the same. I wonder what the planning meetings are like inside Apple.
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Lebanon’s economic crisis worsens amid shortages, currency collapse • The Washington Post

Liz Sly:


Known as an oasis of prosperity and relative stability during the past decade of Middle East turmoil, Lebanon is descending into poverty, despair and potentially chaos. Economists are now predicting a Venezuela-style collapse, with acute shortages of essential products and services, runaway inflation and rising lawlessness — in a country at the heart of an already unstable region.

The Lebanese pound has lost over 60% of its value in just the past month, and 80% of its value since October. Prices are soaring and goods disappearing.

Bread, a staple of the Lebanese diet, is in short supply because the government can’t fund imports of wheat. Essential medicines are disappearing from pharmacies. Hospitals are laying off staff because the government isn’t paying its portion, and canceling surgeries because they don’t have electricity or the fuel to operate generators.

Newly impoverished people are taking to Facebook to offer to trade household items for milk. Crime is on the rise. In one widely circulated video, a man wearing a coronavirus mask and wielding a pistol holds up a drugstore and demands that the pharmacist hand over diapers.

“Lebanon is no longer on the brink of collapse. The economy of Lebanon has collapsed,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “The Lebanese model established since the end of the civil war in 1990 has failed. It was a house of glass, and it has shattered beyond any hope of return.”

The implications are worrying, he said. Lebanon occupies a uniquely fragile position as a country in a state of war with one of its neighbors (Israel), located next door to another war (Syria’s) and in the crosshairs of the conflict between the United States and Iran.


Sometimes the news just isn’t good.
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WSJ journalists ask publisher for clearer distinction between news and opinion content • WSJ

Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg:


A group of journalists at The Wall Street Journal and other Dow Jones staffers sent a letter on Tuesday to the paper’s new publisher, Almar Latour, calling for a clearer differentiation between news and opinion content online, citing concerns about the Opinion section’s accuracy and transparency.

The letter, signed by more than 280 reporters, editors and other employees says, “Opinion’s lack of fact-checking and transparency, and its apparent disregard for evidence, undermine our readers’ trust and our ability to gain credibility with sources.”

The letter cites several examples of concern, including a recent essay by Vice President Mike Pence about coronavirus infections. The letter’s authors said the editors published Mr. Pence’s figures “without checking government figures” and noted that the piece, “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave,’” was later corrected.

The letter says many readers don’t understand that there is a wall between the Journal’s editorial page operations, which have been overseen by Paul Gigot since 2001, and the news staff, which is overseen by Editor in Chief Matt Murray. Mr. Murray was also copied on the letter.

The letter proposed more prominently labeling editorials and opinion columns on the website and mobile apps, including the line “The Wall Street Journal’s Opinion pages are independent of its newsroom.” It also suggests removing opinion pieces from the “Most Popular Articles” and “Recommended Videos” lists on the website, and creating a separate “Most Popular in Opinion” list.


I love how the staff wrote the letter and it’s published in the Business section. But they’re completely right. The WSJ’s Opinion section has long been full of loose-screw nonsense, yet its news stories – breaking the Stormy Daniels payoff, for example, and much more around how National Enquirer suppressed negative stories about Trump – have been first-class.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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