Start Up No.1395: how YouTube fought its algorithm, the scam of the TikTok deal, Apple buys all TSMC’s 5nm output, and more

Yes yes, but what are their views on big tech? CC-licensed photo by duncan c on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Also available left-handed. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

YouTube’s plot to silence conspiracy theories • WIRED

Clive Thompson:


After the Las Vegas shooting, executives began focusing more on the challenge [of preventing conspiracy content going being excessively recommended]. Google’s content moderators grew to 10,000, and YouTube created an “intelligence desk” of people who hunt for new trends in disinformation and other “inappropriate content.” YouTube’s definition of hate speech was expanded to include Alex Jones’ claim that the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School never occurred. The site had already created a “breaking-news shelf” that would run on the homepage and showcase links to content from news sources that Google News had previously vetted. The goal, as Neal Mohan, YouTube’s chief product officer, noted, was not just to delete the obviously bad stuff but to boost reliable, mainstream sources. Internally, they began to refer to this strategy as a set of R’s: “remove” violating material and “raise up” quality stuff.

But what about content that wasn’t quite bad enough to be deleted? Like alleged conspiracies or dubious information that doesn’t advocate violence or promote “dangerous remedies or cures” or otherwise explicitly violate policies? Those videos wouldn’t be removed by moderators or the content-blocking AI. And yet, some executives wondered if they were complicit by promoting them at all. “We noticed that some people were watching things that we weren’t happy with them watching,” says Johanna Wright, one of YouTube’s vice presidents of product management, “like flat-earth videos.” This was what executives began calling “borderline” content. “It’s near the policy but not against our policies,” as Wright said.

By early 2018, YouTube executives decided they wanted to tackle the borderline material too. It would require adding a third R to their strategy—“reduce.” They’d need to engineer a new AI system that would recognize conspiracy content and misinformation and down-rank it.


Which means, if you think about it, that there were now multiple AI systems chasing each other around the system: one doing the recommendations, and others trying to identify and categorise conspiracy content. One’s always going to be ahead of the other. Fascinating piece, though.
unique link to this extract

Six people indicted in Amazon Marketplace bribery scheme to help third-party sellers • The Verge

Kim Lyons:


Six people have been indicted by a grand jury in Washington state on charges they bribed Amazon employees to manipulate third-party seller listings on the e-commerce site, including listings for defective or dangerous products, authorities said.

Starting in 2017, the people, including two former Amazon employees, paid more than $100,000 to have listings of products and accounts that Amazon had blocked or suspended from its Marketplace, which allows third-party sellers to promote and sell their products, the Department of Justice said. The former employees also provided internal Amazon information that allowed attacks on other third-party sellers and their accounts, including flooding the sellers’ product listings with fake negative reviews, authorities said.

The defendants accessed contact information for Amazon employees and customers, which they shared widely, according to authorities. Three of the people were based in New York, one in Georgia, one in California, and one was in India,

“Realizing they could not compete on a level playing field, the subjects turned to bribery and fraud in order to gain the upper hand. What’s equally concerning, not only did they attempt to increase sales of their own products, but sought to damage and discredit their competitors,” Raymond Duda, FBI Seattle Special agent in charge, said in a statement.


All these companies, too big to handle what goes on inside them.
unique link to this extract

Trump celebrates TikTok deal that falls short of his key demands • Bloomberg via MSN

Nick Wadhams and Shelly Banjo:


Linking TikTok to Beijing’s handling of the raging coronavirus outbreak, Trump in July threatened to ban the app used by 100 million Americans unless China handed over control of the company, its algorithms and data to the U.S. Hearkening back to his New York real estate days, he also insisted the US government get compensated in the process.

The deal Trump signed off on Saturday, hours before a Sept. 20 deadline, does almost none of that.

Trump said he wanted the US part of the business owned by an American company. But China’s ByteDance remains the majority shareholder in a new US company that will include fresh investments by Oracle and Walmart in a future fundraising round.

Trump said he wanted the data to stay in American hands, for national security reasons. But the algorithm itself – the thing that makes TikTok TikTok – will still belong to ByteDance, so national security concerns remain, experts said.

And the government payout? That turned into a vaguely worded promise of $5bn in new tax dollars to the US Treasury. The company also said it would create a new “education initiative” to teach kids reading and math online. Still, Trump said he was satisfied.

“They’re going to be setting up a very large fund,” Trump said Saturday. “That’s their contribution that I’ve been asking for.”


As Banjo pointed out in a tweet, this is essentially a scam to funnel a big cloud contract to two Trump supporters.
unique link to this extract

Gangster capitalism and the American theft of Chinese innovation • TechCrunch

Danny Crichton:


It used to be “easy” to tell the American and Chinese economies apart. One was innovative, one made clones. One was a free market while the other demanded payments to a political party and its leadership, a corrupt wealth generating scam that by some estimates has netted top leaders billions of dollars. One kept the talent borders porous acting as a magnet for the world’s top brains while the other interviewed you in a backroom at the airport before imprisoning you on sedition charges (okay, that might have been both).

…much as China protected its industry from overseas competitors like Google and Amazon through market-entry barriers, America is now protecting its entrenched incumbents from overseas competitors like TikTok. We’re demanding joint ventures and local cloud data sovereignty just as the Communist Party has demanded for years.

Hell, we’re apparently demanding a $5bn tax payment from ByteDance, which the president says will fund patriotic education for youth. The president says a lot of things of course, but at least the $5 billion price point has been confirmed by Oracle in its press release over night (what the tax revenue will actually be used for is anyone’s guess). If you followed the recent Hong Kong protests for a long time, you will remember that patriotic youth education was some of the original tinder for those demonstrations back in 2012. What comes around, goes around, I guess.


This is true, though Crichton doesn’t mention that the principal reason why this is now the case is that the US presently has the most corrupt administration in its entire history. Change the administration for one that respects the rule of law, and suddenly a lot of these things go away.
unique link to this extract

Apple books TSMC’s entire 5-nanometre production capability • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:


TSMC won’t have to worry about finding additional customers for its 5nm line any time soon. If reports are true, Apple bought the entire production capacity for the iPhone, iPad, and other refreshed devices it has recently launched or will launch in the coming weeks. Apple hasn’t refreshed the iPhone yet this year, but it’s expected to do so in October, and the company has had a lock on TSMC’s 5nm production for months.

TSMC will build 5nm chips for the iPhone 12, iPad Air, 5G iPad Pro, and any future MacBook or iMac systems Apple launches with its own custom ARM silicon. In 2019, Apple is thought to have accounted for about 20% of TSMC’s monthly revenue, making it one of TSMC’s largest customers.

This sort of single-customer focus is unusual for a pure-play foundry, but it also makes sense given longstanding trends in the semiconductor market. Ten years ago, companies such as AMD, Nvidia, and Intel were typically the first manufacturers to deploy on leading-edge nodes. These firms used their high-end designs to function as “pipe-cleaners” for the node. More recently, however, that trend has shifted. Now, it’s the mobile manufacturers like Apple and Qualcomm that typically take the first launches.

…Apple is expected to produce between 74m and 80m iPhone 12’s this year. The biggest near-term impact of this is Qualcomm reportedly partnering with Samsung to build the Snapdragon 875 on that company’s 5nm, with a formal announcement expected in December.


Ambitious. About 5m per quarter will be going into the Apple Silicon machines. Compared to the iPhone plus iPad, not much – but they’re going to have heftier GPUs and CPUs, so the yields will be lower.
unique link to this extract

Google and Facebook under pressure to ban children’s ads • BBC News


Tech firms have been urged to stop advertising to under-18s in an open letter signed by MPs, academics and children’s-rights advocates.

Behavioural advertising not only undermines privacy but puts “susceptible” youngsters under unfair marketing pressure, the letter says.

It is addressed to Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft.

In a separate move Google-owned YouTube is accused of unlawfully mining data from five million under-13s in the UK. European data protection laws forbid the mining of data of young children.

“The fact that ad-tech companies hold 72 million data points on a child by the time they turn 13 shows the extent of disregard for these laws, and the extraordinary surveillance to which children are subjected,” the letter reads. “There is no justification for targeting teenagers with personalised ads any more than there is for targeting 12-year-olds. You, the most powerful companies on the internet, have a responsibility to protect your users.”

Among the 23 signatories are MP Caroline Lucas and clinical psychologist Dr Elly Hanson. Friends of the Earth is also named on the letter.

…Separately, privacy advocate Duncan McCann is suing Google on behalf of five million British children, claiming it broke privacy laws by tracking children online, in breach of both UK and European data-protection laws.

The case, lodged with the UK High Court in July, will be strongly contested by YouTube which will argue its platform is not for children aged under 13.


No, that would be YouTube Kids, which, hmm, “has faced criticism from advocacy groups, particularly the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, for concerns surrounding the app’s use of commercial advertising”.
unique link to this extract

Nikola outsourced batteries on truck prototype • Financial Times

Claire Bushey and Peter Campbell:


Nikola is relying on Californian manufacturer Romeo Power Technology for batteries for one of its prototype electric trucks, according to documents seen by the Financial Times and a person familiar with the work.

The use of an established industry supplier is the second example of the start-up outsourcing a key technology, months after it touted its own “game-changing” battery, which it said it would demonstrate this year.

Earlier this month, Nikola agreed to purchase General Motors’ Ultium battery for its Badger pick-up truck, as part of a $2bn deal in which GM is taking an 11% stake in the company.

Excitement for Nikola’s technology has helped propel its shares this year, to the point that it was briefly more valuable than Ford, but it is now fighting allegations that it repeatedly misrepresented its progress and does not have the proprietary technology it claimed.


This looks like a lawsuit in the making.
unique link to this extract

The ad industry extends an olive branch to Apple

Andrew Blustein and Ronan Shields:


media buyers are still confused by what the impending policy change means for ad targeting, and many are unclear as to the exact date of the change. The eventual ambition of PRAM [Partnership for Responsible Addressable Media] is for Apple to engage more proactively with some of its working groups, Tucker told Adweek.

Stu Ingis, a partner at law firm Venable LLP, told Adweek that ad-tech companies “have nothing to hide” and that Apple commercials celebrating its privacy credentials depict data discrepancies that are not widely practiced in the industry.

“The idea is that we’re not trying to hide anything here,” he added. “It’s an olive branch to say, ‘If these are your concerns … then let’s sit down and identify what privacy concerns there are, and what solutions might work.’”

Apple has not formally responded to PRAM’s overture and declined to comment on record to Adweek, although it has made clear through its years-long efforts to minimize third-party ad targeting, tracking and data brokerage that it deems these practices invasive.

Apple has existing advertising offerings, and made its own failed play with iAd 10 years ago, but it characteristically makes unilateral policy decisions. While Apple employees are active in web standards bodies such as W3C, it hasn’t participated in trade orgs such as the IAB recently (Apple was a member of the IAB from 2007 until 2014). Although Apple was at one point a member of the ANA, a trade org that represents brand-side marketers, it canceled its 15-year membership in February, according to sources.

However, some state that Apple has changed its tack when it comes to cooperating with the rest of the industry. DigiDay reported that it is striking “a more conciliatory tone” with the industry, noting that Apple had agreed to meet with representatives of IAB Europe and the Tech Lab in early September.

This followed the trade group’s open letter urging Apple to consider interoperability with GDPR standards dating back to July.


Love how the online ad industry, responsible for continual invasion of privacy, is now terrified that Apple is going to clamp down on its practices. The line of “if these are your concerns…” is better translated as “we’re worried as hell about this”.
unique link to this extract

Scientists may know where coronavirus originated, study says • Fox News

Amy McGorry:


The group of scientists from the United States, China, and Europe compared mutation patterns of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to other viruses, and created an evolutionary history of the related viruses. They discovered the lineage responsible for producing the virus that created the COVID-19 pandemic has been present in bats, according to the study.

“Collectively our analyses point to bats being the primary reservoir for the SARS-CoV-2 lineage. While it is possible that pangolins, or another hitherto undiscovered species, may have acted as an intermediate host facilitating transmission to humans, current evidence is consistent with the virus having evolved in bats resulting in bat sarbecoviruses that can replicate in the upper respiratory tract of both humans and pangolins,” the study authors said in the published report.

The novel coronavirus evolved from other bat viruses from 40-70 years ago, the team of researchers said. “The lineage giving rise to SARS-CoV-2 has been circulating unnoticed in bats for decades,” the authors wrote.

In a news release provided to Fox News, the researchers said that SARS-CoV-2 is similar genetically (about 96%) to the RaTG13 coronavirus found in a sample of the Rhinolophus affinis horseshoe bat in 2013 in Yunnan province, China, but it diverged from RaTG13 back in 1969.

“The ability to estimate divergence times after disentangling recombination histories, which is something we developed in this collaboration, may lead to insights into the origins of many different viral pathogens,” principal investigator, Philippe Lemey, with the Department of Evolutionary and Computational Virology, KE Leuven, said in the release.


Yes, reported at Fox News, on its website. Meanwhile the TV station was running a wild conspiracy theory segment on Tucker Carlson’s show with a Hong Kong scientist who insists that SARS-Cov-2 is a Chinese bioweapon. (But if it’s a Chinese bioweapon, why did China make so much noise about it? Damn details screwing up our conspiracy theories.)
unique link to this extract

Where Trump and Biden stand on big tech • WSJ

John D. McKinnon and Ryan Tracy:


In a second term, Mr. Trump and his appointees likely would maintain—and possibly accelerate—the broad-scale regulatory scrutiny of technology companies that marked his first term. That effort has included allegations of anticonservative bias online, antitrust investigations of internet giants such as Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook Inc., and actions against Chinese-owned apps such as TikTok and WeChat.

Mr. Biden, the Democratic nominee, has also been critical of Big Tech’s market power. He and running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D., Calif.) say they would support stricter antitrust oversight and online privacy rules. But the Biden camp has emphasized forcing social-media companies to better police their sites against false information, and taking government action to help workers under threat from innovations such as self-driving cars.

…Mr. Biden has expressed concerns about the potential impacts of many tech innovations, such as self-driving vehicles, on people with middle-class jobs. “Whether your predictions are true about automation and self-driving trucks, these folks aren’t stupid,” he said in a speech in 2018 at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “They listen, they understand and they’re scared to death.” Among Mr. Biden’s proposed solutions are such ideas as providing extra government aid to help workers who have been dislocated by tech.

…In a New York Times interview early this year, Mr. Biden described meeting as vice president with tech leaders—“little creeps,” he called them—touting their industry’s economic benefit.

“‘You have fewer people on your payroll than all the losses that General Motors just faced in the last quarter, of employees. So don’t lecture me about how you’ve created all this employment,’” Mr. Biden said he responded.


Notice how the WSJ actually has no idea what a second Trump administration would do, because Trump doesn’t. I’ll take a stab at how this story originated. A news editor wandered over (in real life or virtually) to the writers and said “hey, with the election coming up.. how about we do a piece contrasting where Trump and Biden stand on Big Tech?” Writers groaned inwardly. Then replied cheerily “Sure!”
unique link to this extract

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1395: how YouTube fought its algorithm, the scam of the TikTok deal, Apple buys all TSMC’s 5nm output, and more

  1. Even if nobody can predict exactly what a future Trump administration would do, I’d say there’s decent comparative analysis which can be done based on what we’ve already seen. If some tech-policy wag hasn’t made the following joke, they should: “Both Biden and Trump want to extensively change “Second 230″ regarding the legal status of how tech companies deal with misinformation. Biden wants tech companies to have liability for any lies or misinformation which appear on the company’s platform. In contrast, Trump wants tech companies to have liability for declining to have lies and misinformation appear on the company’s platform”.

    [A bit oversimplified, and the phrasing needs work, but there’s a real policy difference.]

  2. Charles, now that Safari shows trackers on a site, I’m disappointed that you have a Facebook tracker on your WordPress blog.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.