Start Up No.1401: Google cracks down on app payments, the TikTok failure, how Iranians stay in touch, no herd immunity in Brazil, and more


Scottish MSPs want to investigate Trump’s purchase of golf courses under money-laundering laws. CC-licensed photo by Ric Lander on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Not in the rough. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google demands 30% cut from app developers in its Play Store • The New York Times

Daisuke Wakabayashi:

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Google said it would no longer allow any apps to circumvent its payment system within the Google Play store that provides the company a cut of in-app purchases.

Google said in a blog post on Monday that it was providing “clarity” on billing policies because there was confusion among some developers about what types of transactions require use of its app store’s billing system.

Google has had a policy of taking a 30% cut of payments made within apps offered by the Google Play store, but some developers including Netflix and Spotify have bypassed the requirement by prompting users for a credit card to pay them directly. Google said companies had until Sept. 30, 2021, to integrate its billing systems.

The way the Google and Apple app stores collect fees has become an especially contentious issue in recent months after Epic Games, maker of the popular game Fortnite, sued Apple and Google, claiming they violated antitrust rules with the commissions they charge.

On Monday, a federal judge in California’s Northern District Court in Oakland heard testimony from Epic Games and Apple to determine whether Apple can continue to ban Fortnite, Epic’s popular game, from its app store. The hearing, in which each side debated the size of the app distribution market and Apple’s power over it, offered a preview of the antitrust case before it goes to trial sometime next year.

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Poor headline; doesn’t do the work that the intro (lede to Americans) does. There doesn’t seem to have been an outraged response from either Netflix or Spotify to this. Meanwhile, Google says Android 12 will let companies set up “alternative app stores”. Exciting, but will only be available to a tiny proportion of Android users for a long time.
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The biggest Trump financial mystery? Where he came up with the cash for his Scottish resort purchases • Mother Jones

Russ Choma:

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His large expenditures in Scotland were notable because they came during a rocky financial stretch for Trump. The year before purchasing the Aberdeenshire estate, he was ousted as CEO of his thrice-bankrupted casino business; in 2008, he defaulted on a large Deutsche Bank loan tied to a development in Chicago.

Like other Trump wagers, his Scottish gamble has so far not worked out. Both resorts are bleeding millions annually. Meanwhile, he and his company have spent years viciously skirmishing with various locals and government agencies that resisted Trump’s plans to build luxury housing on the fringes of the resorts, which the Trump Organization seems to view as vital to profitability.

If business was lackluster before, it’s dismal now that the coronavirus pandemic has all but halted the Scottish golf season, at least as far as international travelers are concerned. To make matters worse, as Trump’s hospitality empire grapples with the fallout of COVID-19, it also faces a series of maturing debts, loans amounting to nearly a half-billion dollars, which need to be paid down or refinanced over the next four years.

Recently, a new—and perhaps bigger—threat to Trump has emerged in Scotland. Scottish lawmakers are pushing to peer into Trump’s finances using an anti-money- laundering statute typically employed against kleptocrats, oligarchs, and crime kingpins. Their question: where did the hundreds of millions Trump poured into his Scottish courses actually come from?

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I like how the penultimate sentence there uses “typically” rather than “usually”. Trump’s all three, after all. And it certainly is very, very suspicious that he paid cash for these rather than raising debt (his preferred method for purchasing) and that they lose money hand over fist. He likes golf, but it’s hard to believe he likes golf that much.

Proving that they’re money laundering conduits is going to be much harder, though. At least this quote is a keeper: “Of all the people in the world that aren’t going to put up with a fool, it’s the Scots,” [Rick Reilly] says. “They’re just such a no-nonsense people and they see him for what he is: He’s a big blowhard con man who is trying to tell them what they know isn’t true.”
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Cockamamie TikTok deal fails on every measure • Financial Times

John Thornhill:

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Like all Chinese companies, TikTok’s parent ByteDance operates at the whims of the Communist party. The flip side of any Chinese censorship is propaganda. Should it so wish, TikTok could target users in electoral swing states in the US to push — or undermine — a particular agenda or candidate.

If the overriding concern about TikTok is national security then it would make more sense to ban it outright, just as India has done. If we are living in a world of informational warfare then it matters who controls the platforms.

The deal’s details have yet to be clarified, but, as it stands, it skirts many of those national security concerns. True, TikTok’s data will be held on US servers and Oracle will have an oversight role. But ByteDance will retain control of the all-important algorithms that serve up content to its users and the Chinese government has signalled it does not want to share such important technology. ByteDance says it will also retain an 80% stake in TikTok Global. 

Moreover, as Sinan Aral, co-leader of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, argues, US-owned tech platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, are themselves still open to manipulation by malign foreign powers. 

As he describes in his book The Hype Machine, Russian disinformation reached at least 126m people on Facebook in the 2016 presidential election and is still rampant today. This is a systemic failing that needs to be tackled, not a national security threat that can be expunged by one executive order.

The broader problem with the TikTok deal is the damaging politicisation of business. “To step in to decide winners and losers on the level of individual companies and individual deals is next to unprecedented in the US and sets a very dangerous precedent,” Prof Aral says.

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Of course Facebook and Twitter are being manipulated in favour of Trump, so he’s not going to object to them. TikTok’s threat is only theoretical, but of course Trump was angered by them making fun of him, and the natsec argument is a figleaf. Modi’s excuse in India is just as thin, but at least he didn’t arse about with fake “deals” for his friends.
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How Iran’s diaspora are using old-school tech to fight censorship at home • Rest Of World

Mehr Nadeem:

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On November 15, as Iranian authorities first moved to induce the digital blackout, 44-year-old Yahyanejad raced against the clock in Los Angeles to make sure that people back home had downloaded his satellite file-casting application Toosheh. “It was a very small window,” says Yahyanejad. “Once they were fully disconnected, I wasn’t sure they’d be able to download the software.” 

Launched by Yahyanejad in 2016, the technology aggregates uncensored content, like news articles, YouTube videos, and podcasts, and sends it to Iranian homes directly via satellite TV. When Yahyanejad first began developing Toosheh in 2013, an estimated 70% of Iranian households owned a satellite dish, while around 20% had access to the internet. Even as internet access has grown, state censorship means Toosheh’s satellite technology is a much more reliable source for uncensored content. Iranians can install Toosheh’s satellite channel and receive a daily dispatch in the form of a file package of up to 8 gigabytes. Once a user downloads the app, the satellite transfers circumvent the internet entirely. 

Yahyanejad says Toosheh gained nearly 100,000 new Iranians users in November 2019. In the absence of an internet connection, it became the only way for many users to access news from the outside world. The voice on Toosheh’s voicemail belonged to one such user, a 34-year-old high school principal in Tehran who downloaded emergency VPN and proxy tools delivered to him through the satellite service. 

Having navigated extensive cyber censorship for over a decade, Iranians are tech savvy and adept at nimbly crossing firewalls, using proxies and foreign circumvention tools. “It’s a constant cat-and-mouse game,” says Fereidoon Bashar, executive director of ASL19, a Canadian organization working to help Iranians bypass internet censorship.

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Toosheh is a clever idea: you can get quite a download speed from a satellite. The problem, of course, is the uplink. Rest Of World is highly recommended: a focus on all those technology stories that aren’t happening in the Anglocentric world. (Thanks Ravi for the link.)
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In Brazil’s Amazon, a COVID-19 resurgence dashes herd immunity hopes • Reuters

Anthony Boadle:

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In April and May, so many Manaus residents were dying from COVID-19 that its hospitals collapsed and cemeteries could not dig graves fast enough. The city never imposed a full lockdown. Non-essential businesses were closed but many simply ignored social distancing guidelines.

Then in June, deaths unexpectedly plummeted. Public health experts wondered whether so many residents had caught the virus that it had run out of new people to infect.

Research posted last week to medRxiv, a website distributing unpublished papers on health science, estimated that 44% to 66% of the Manaus population was infected between the peak in mid-May and August.

The study by the University of Sao Paulo’s Institute of Tropical Medicine tested newly donated banked blood for antibodies to the virus and used a mathematical model to estimate contagion levels. The high infection rate suggested that herd immunity led to the dramatic drop in cases and deaths, the study said.

Scientists estimate that up to 70% of the population may need to be protected against coronavirus to reach herd immunity.

…The Sao Paulo University study said coronavirus antibodies appeared to wane after just a few months, which could explain the resurgence in Manaus.

“Something that became evident in our study – and that is also being shown by other groups – is that antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 decay quickly, a few months after infection,” one of its authors, Lewis Buss, said in a statement by the São Paulo research foundation FAPESP that accompanied the paper.

“This is clearly occurring in Manaus,” Buss said.

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What does this mean for a vaccine, though, if antibodies go after a few months? Also – a question I haven’t seen anywhere – does that mean that all of the body’s response to this fades in the same period?
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Poland goes nuclear with plan to build six reactors by 2040 • Global Construction Review

David Rogers:

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The government of Poland plans to invest $40bn in building six nuclear reactors over the next 20 years. It currently has none.

The announcement was made on Tuesday 8 September by Michał Kurtyka, the country’s climate minister (pictured).

Poland wants to cut its dependence on coal, which currently fuels about 75% of its electricity generation, and generate half its electricity from zero-emission sources by 2040. 

The reactors are intended to provide a baseload supply, and to cover the nine or 10 days in the year when there is not enough wind or solar energy to meet demand. 

Work on the first reactor will begin in 2026 with the aim of it entering service in 2033. 

Altogether, the new units will generate about 9GW by 2040, according to the plan.

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Classic problem of coal (or gas) providing the baseline. Even with the UK it’s still a struggle not to use coal despite the breadth of renewable use.
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Some Google search rivals lose footing on Android system • WSJ

Sam Schechner:

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Since March, Alphabet-owned Google has been showing people in Europe who set up new mobile devices running the company’s Android operating system what it calls a “choice screen,” a list of rival search engines that they can select as the device’s default. The system is part of Google’s compliance with a 2018 decision that found the company used Android’s dominance to strong-arm phone makers into pre-installing its search engine.

But some small search engines that are relatively popular in Europe failed to win spots in large European countries in the latest round of auctions to appear on the choice screen, according to people familiar with the results. The results, which cover the fourth quarter of the year, are set to be announced on Monday.

DuckDuckGo, maker of a US-based search engine that doesn’t collect data about its users, lost the auction in all but four small European countries, the people said. Berlin-based Ecosia, which donates most of its profit to planting trees, also didn’t win a slot in any large European country, the people added.

The major winners of the auctions—which offer three spots in each of 31 countries to outside search engines—include Microsoft Corp.’s Bing, as well as a handful of other small search engines, the people said. Google doesn’t participate in the auctions but is offered automatically as a choice in every country along with the auction winners.

…Google has defended its use of auctions saying that “an auction is a fair and objective method to determine which search providers are included.”

The elimination of some smaller search engines gives fodder to Google rivals who have complained that the company has crafted its compliance with the EU’s antitrust decisions in ways that don’t fundamentally change the competitive landscape. DuckDuckGo and Ecosia are the most popular small search engines in Europe, with 0.5% and 0.3% market share as of August, respectively, according to Statcounter.

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OK. So they’re not big. At all. (The choice screen hadn’t been updated when I looked on Monday night in the UK.) Who gets the money from the auction? I don’t quite get why it should be an auction at all: if the EC says that Google shouldn’t force itself on OEMs, shouldn’t there just be a list?
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Withings ScanWatch review: measuring your sleep still needs work • The Verge

Nicole Wetsman:

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smartwatches can still only tell you so much. They’re good at calculating the total amount of time healthy people spend asleep. They’re usually just measuring time at rest, though. If someone has insomnia and spends hours lying very still and trying to sleep, a smartwatch might think that they’re actually asleep, says Chris Depner, who studies sleep at the University of Utah.

The charts that show how much time you spend in deep sleep versus light sleep also don’t tend to be reliable for most people. The stages of sleep as measured by smartwatches are only accurate about half of the time. “It’s just like a flip of a coin. It could be accurate for you, or it could actually be horribly inaccurate,” Depner says.

It’s not clear what counts as deep sleep for the different devices. There’s a fine line between the different stages of sleep, and there are different ways to calculate them. Even among experts, people use deep sleep to mean different things, says Seema Khosla, medical director of the North Dakota Center for Sleep. Some might lump non-REM and REM sleep together, for example, while others would differentiate between them.

At a high level, the sleep stage feature might help give a general idea of how someone is sleeping. But they can also be misleading. “I tend to trust when the devices might tell me someone is awake, verses when someone is asleep,” Patil says. “But I don’t put a lot of emphasis on the differentiation between light sleep and deep sleep.”

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The implicit claim of these sleep monitoring apps (via smartwatches) has never stacked up to me. If they can’t monitor REM v non-REM sleep, and they can’t, then about all they can tell you is your pulse rate and struggle to infer something from that. As Wetsman says, nobody goes around bragging about their sleep score.
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Seattle underground • Wikipedia

Following on from yesterday’s by-the-way about Chicago being lifted up six feet to get it above sea/lake level:

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After the Great Seattle Fire of June 6, 1889, new construction was required to be of masonry, and the town’s streets were regraded one to two stories higher. Pioneer Square had originally been built mostly on filled-in tidelands and often flooded. The new street level also kept sewers draining into Elliott Bay from backing up at high tide.

For the regrade, the streets were lined with concrete walls that formed narrow alleyways between the walls and the buildings on both sides of the street, with a wide “alley” where the street was. The naturally steep hillsides were used and, through a series of sluices, material was washed into the wide “alleys,” raising the streets to the desired new level, generally 12 feet (3.7 m) higher than before, in some places nearly 30 feet (9.1 m).

At first, pedestrians climbed ladders to go between street level and the sidewalks in front of the building entrances.

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These incredible feats of civil engineering are all completely overlooked now – well, apart from Wikipedia, of course. Though it does make me feel that the plotline in the film “Us” could almost be, you know, true. (Thanks Ravi for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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