Start Up No.1397: Facebook’s strategy on US election chaos (and threat to Europe), is Twitter’s photo algorithm secretly racist?, and more


How many people would be needed to run a dogwalking app for the entire world? Probably fewer than you think. CC-licensed photo by Staffan Cederborg on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Not locked down. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

YouTube reverts to human moderators in fight against misinformation • Financial Times

Alex Barker and Hannah Murphy:

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Google’s YouTube has reverted to using more human moderators to vet harmful content after the machines it relied on during lockdown proved to be overzealous censors of its video platform.

When some of YouTube’s 10,000-strong team filtering content were “put offline” by the pandemic, YouTube gave its machine systems greater autonomy to stop users seeing hate speech, violence or other forms of harmful content or misinformation.

But Neal Mohan, YouTube’s chief product officer, told the Financial Times that one of the results of reducing human oversight was a jump in the number of videos removed, including a significant proportion that broke no rules.

Almost 11m were taken down in the second quarter between April and June, double the usual rate. “Even 11m is a very, very small, tiny fraction of the overall videos on YouTube . . . but it was a larger number than in the past,” he said.

“One of the decisions we made [at the beginning of the pandemic] when it came to machines who couldn’t be as precise as humans, we were going to err on the side of making sure that our users were protected, even though that might have resulted in s slightly higher number of videos coming down.”

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The implicit assumption there is that there’s a correct number of videos to be taken down – that it doesn’t vary, even in a situation where you have loads of people spreading conspiracy videos about 5G, bats, Chinese bioweapons, vaccines, and so on. That seems like an assumption that needs closer examination.
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I scanned the websites i visit with Blacklight, and it’s horrifying. Now what? • The Markup

Aaron Sankin:

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Internet browsers have a “do not track” feature, which is a browser setting that signals to websites and third-party tracking companies that the user would prefer they refrain from collecting the person’s data.

But The Future of Privacy Forum says it has little effect: “Most sites do not currently change their practices when they receive a … [Do Not Track] signal.”

The Digital Advertising Alliance, an industry trade group, offers a tool allowing internet users to opt out of having their browsing history used to serve them targeted ads. Since the group is a consortium representing hundreds of companies, users can opt out of being targeted by all of them with a few clicks.

However, to even get the tool to work in the first place, users have to allow themselves to be tracked by third-party cookies, since those cookies are how the ad-tech companies are able to identify who has opted out. In addition, opting out like this isn’t guaranteed to stop companies from collecting your data; they only promise they won’t use that data to try to sell you stuff.

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It’s a very, very, very, very detailed look at browser tracking and how to avoid it (you can’t entirely). Blacklight is a tool developed by The Markup which shows you what trackers are operating on what site.

This blog (as it’s run by WordPress) has a Facebook tracker – I’ve looked, and can’t seem to turn it off as it’s embedded somewhere in the code. If you know how I can, please let me know.
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No matter what the CDC says, here’s why many scientists think the coronavirus is airborne • The Washington Post

Ben Guarino, Chris Mooney and Tim Elfrink:

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday removed language from its website that said the novel coronavirus spreads via airborne transmission, the latest example of the agency backtracking from its own guidance.

The agency said the guidance, which went up on Friday and largely went without notice until late Sunday, should not have been posted because it was an early draft.

“Unfortunately an early draft of a revision went up without any technical review,” said Jay Butler, the CDC’s deputy director for infectious diseases. “We are returning to the earlier version and revisiting that process. It was a failure of process at CDC.”

Evidence that the virus floats in the air has mounted for months, with an increasingly loud chorus of aerosol biologists pointing to superspreading events in choirs, buses, bars and other poorly ventilated spaces. They cheered when the CDC seemed to join them in agreeing the coronavirus can be airborne.

Experts who reviewed the CDC’s Friday post had said the language change had the power to shift policy and drive a major rethinking on the need to better ventilate indoor air.

…If airborne spread was the main route, Butler said he would have expected the disease to travel even faster around the globe than it did. “The epidemiology seems pretty clear that the highest risk is in household contexts,” he said, meaning through the proximity of one family member or roommate to another.

Sudden flip-flops on public guidance is antithetical to the CDC’s own rules for crisis management. After disastrous communications during the 2001 anthrax attacks — when white powder in envelopes sparked widespread panic — the agency created a 450-page manual outlining how US leaders should talk to the public during crises.

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I’m sure that manual is doing really great work propping up a table somewhere, given how much notice the current administration takes of such advice.
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Facebook vows to restrict users if US election descends into chaos • Financial Times

Hannah Murphy:

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Facebook has said it will take aggressive and exceptional measures to “restrict the circulation of content” on its platform if November’s presidential election descends into chaos or violent civic unrest.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Nick Clegg, the company’s head of global affairs, said it had drawn up plans for how to handle a range of outcomes, including widespread civic unrest or “the political dilemmas” of having in-person votes counted more rapidly than mail-in ballots, which will play a larger role in this election due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“There are some break-glass options available to us if there really is an extremely chaotic and, worse still, violent set of circumstances,” Mr Clegg said, though he stopped short of elaborating further on what measures were on the table.

The proposed actions, which would probably go further than any previously taken by a US platform, come as the social media group is under increasing pressure to lay out how it plans to combat election-related misinformation, voter suppression and the incitement of violence on the November 3 election day and during the post-election period. 

It also comes as concerns mount that even US president Donald Trump himself could take to social media to contest the result or call for violent protest, potentially triggering a constitutional crisis.

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I’m wary of believing Clegg’s talking up of “what Facebook would do” because Facebook always talks a lot bigger than it ever does; even when it wants to do something, the company’s own scale overwhelms it. (See yesterday’s item about trying and failing to rein in QAnon nonsense.) But ex-engineers at Facebook say there is an option to remove all news links from the News Feed. That would be a start, though just shutting the whole thing down for a few days might be a better option.
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Facebook says it will stop operating in Europe if regulators don’t back down • Vice

David Gilbert:

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In a court filing in Dublin, Facebook said that a decision by Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) would force the company to pull up stakes and leave the 410 million people who use Facebook and photo-sharing service Instagram in the lurch.

If the decision is upheld, “it is not clear to [Facebook] how, in those circumstances, it could continue to provide the Facebook and Instagram services in the EU,” Yvonne Cunnane, who is Facebook Ireland’s head of data protection and associate general counsel, wrote in a sworn affidavit.

The decision Facebook’s referring to is a preliminary order handed down last month to stop the transfer of data about European customers to servers in the US, over concerns about US government surveillance of the data.

Facebook hit back by filing a lawsuit challenging the Irish DPC’s ban, and in a sworn affidavit filed this week, the company leveled some very serious accusations about the Irish data-protection commissioner, including a lack of fairness and apparent bias in singling out Facebook.

Cunnane points out that Facebook was given only three weeks to respond to the decision, a period that is “manifestly inadequate,” adding that Facebook wasn’t contacted about the inquiry prior to judgment being handed down.

She also raises concerns about the decision being made “solely” by Helen Dixon, Ireland’s data protection commissioner.

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This would be remarkable if it came to pass, though I think we all suspect that they will find some fuged middle path in which Facebook will promise not to transfer the data (but will) and Ireland will accept its white lie. After all, that’s what’s happened before.
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What to expect from Google’s 2020 Hardware event • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

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Google’s big yearly hardware event is scheduled for September 30, and as usual, we’re expecting a big pile of products to be announced. Google has a hard time keeping anything under wraps before the event, so we’re doing a roundup of all the leaks so far. We’re expecting four products: the Pixel 5 (and Pixel 4a 5G), the “Nest Audio” smart speaker, a new Chromecast with a remote and Android TV, and maybe even a new Nest thermostat.

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Fine thanks goodbye. Basically all the details have been leaked, so why turn up?
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Google is shutting down paid Chrome extensions • The Verge

Jay Peters:

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Google is shutting down paid Chrome extensions offered on the Chrome Web Store, the company announced today. That means that developers who are trying to monetize their extensions will have to do so with other payment-handling systems.

As of Monday, developers can no longer make new paid extensions, according to Google — though that’s cementing a policy that has already been in place since March. And that policy follows a temporary suspension of publishing paid extensions in January after Google noticed an uptick in fraudulent transactions that “aim[ed] to exploit users.”

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Though in its blogpost, Google effectively says “it’s because there are lots of other ways to pay for extensions”, implying that it’s fine with you being ripped off as long as the ripoff doesn’t go through its payment systems. Possibly, though, that’s what it’s about: it doesn’t like having to deal with refund demands, rather than that it doesn’t like people being ripped off.
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Twitter investigating after users spot mobile app prefers White faces • CNBC

Sam Shead:

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Twitter says it’s investigating why its picture-cropping algorithm sometimes prefers White faces to Black ones.

The investigation comes after Twitter users noticed Black faces were less likely to be shown than White ones in image previews on mobile when the image contains a Black face and a White face.

The micro-blogging platform said it didn’t find any evidence of racial and gender bias when it tested the algorithm but conceded it had more analysis to do.

Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s chief technology officer, said Twitter analyzed the model when it shipped it, but said that it needs continuous improvement.

“Love this public, open, and rigorous test — and eager to learn from this,” he said on the platform.

The issue came to light after Colin Madland, a university manager in Vancouver, noticed that his Black colleague’s head kept disappearing when using the video conferencing app Zoom. It appeared as though Zoom’s software thought the Black man’s head was part of the background and removed it as a result. Zoom did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment. 

After tweeting about the issue to see if anyone knew what was going on, Madland then realized that Twitter was also guilty of hiding Black faces. Specifically, he noticed Twitter was choosing to preview his own White face over his colleague’s Black face on mobile.

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I saw the original thread by Madland, and didn’t see the problems other people did; I was viewing it in a third-party app (Tweetbot) on both mobile and desktop. Clearly, it’s Twitter’s system at fault here.
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Just how many people do we need doing that job, anyway? • Rachel By The Bay

Rachel Kroll:

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Think of your favorite “web 2.0” service or app. Maybe it’s something that sends dog walkers around to your house regularly. Perhaps it can be used to deliver your favorite kind of pizza or beer. It could even be something that lets you chat with other people. We’ll go with dog walking as the example here.

Now think about the entirety of humanity. At the moment, there seem to be about 7.8 billion people running around on this planet (plus a handful in orbit). For the sake of this thought experiment, assume all of them have Internet access and actually have some use for dog walking services.

Consider this: just how many really good people do you suppose it would take to saturate the market and provide service to the entirety of humanity for that dog walking dispatch?

Me? I think it’s about 100 people, tops. Granted, I’m talking about the top 100 people in the population for solving this specific problem: running apps that dispatch dog walkers to dogs… for all ~8 billion of us.

They need not work at the same company. For the sake of some realism, imagine them split up somehow. It could be 20 companies with 5 people each, 5 companies with 20 people each, or 10 companies with 10 people each. Whatever.

Now let’s say you looked at the actual marketplace and determined there were closer to 100,000 people actually working on these dog-walking apps. What do you suppose that means? What could possibly be going on there?

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Kroll is widely admired in the web engineering community; what she describes in the rest of her post is probably much of what’s really happening. The classic cases of “a few people running a world-spanning service” are Instagram and WhatsApp, of course. Kroll presently works at Facebook.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1397: Facebook’s strategy on US election chaos (and threat to Europe), is Twitter’s photo algorithm secretly racist?, and more

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