Start Up No.1408: Uighur diaspora v Great Firewall, is Facebook preparing for Trump’s defeat?, the Big Tech report digested, and more


Think the hardest part of a USB3 connection is getting the plug right way up? Think again. CC-licensed photo by Kai Hendry on Flickr.

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A selection of 13 links for you. They’re on steroids! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The rise of a quiet Uighur counter-surveillance state • Rest of World

Peter Guest:

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Cut off from their loved ones, Uighurs in exile are testing the limitations of the firewall. In Japan, Muhammad’ali stays in touch with old school friends via WeChat and Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. They communicate in Mandarin — to use Uighur would attract attention — and in code. They are all basketball fans, so they use ciphers based on teams and players to relay information about who is still free and who has been sent to a camp or transferred to a factory. This doesn’t guarantee safety, but they gamble that they can stay ahead of the censors. “We can guess some keywords are monitored by machines, not by people,” Muhammad’ali says. “So we try not to say these keywords and just find other signals.”

Muhammad’ali and his fellow exiles meet in WeChat and WhatsApp groups, where they share and pore over leaked videos, social posts, reports from state media, and propaganda broadcasts, scanning the backgrounds for inconsistencies and absences — anything they can use to determine what is really happening back home. For the most part, they are not activists — or at least they didn’t start out as such. But frustrated with stonewalling and state propaganda, they are doing whatever they can to find out what happened to their loved ones and to relay that information to journalists and human rights organizations. 

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Easy to forget that the Uighurs aren’t limited to China, and that there’s a diaspora who want to talk to those inside it. Too easy to forget this injustice altogether.
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Congress gets ready to smash big tech monopolies • BIG by Matt Stoller

Matt Stoller has read the Congressional report on Big Tech so you don’t have to:

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the subcommittee report is also a deeply political document, explicitly so. Cicilline attacks the way that these corporations finance think tanks and academics. “Through a combination of direct lobbying and funding think tanks and academics,” it wrote, “the dominant platforms have expanded their sphere of influence, further shaping how they are governed and regulated.” I got fired from my think tank after criticizing Google in 2017, so that section rings true to me. The platforms also engaged in routine attempts to deceive investigators, and the report is merciless about such attempts at deception. For instance, the committee asked Amazon for a list of its top ten competitors. The report authors noted that “Amazon identified 1,700 companies, including Eero (a company Amazon owns), a discount surgical supply distributor, and a beef jerky company.” The report has multiple examples of such dissembling, from each company.

…Basically, Cicilline wants to fix the problem we have with big tech, make sure it doesn’t recur by changing the laws that led to it, and make enforcement better by pressuring public officials and empowering ordinary citizens themselves to enforce anti-monopoly laws. So recommendations fall into four buckets: (1) a legislative break-up and restructuring of big tech platforms to restore competition online (2) a strengthening of laws against monopolies and mergers, (3) institutional reforms to fix and fund the Federal Trade Commission and DOJ Antitrust Division, and (4) restoring the ability of ordinary citizens to take monopolists to court on their own.

The premise of this report is that the tech sector is simply far too concentrated, and so Congress will have to affirmatively take steps to de-centralize power there. Cicilline recommends passing laws that would break up tech platforms, as well as imposing rules mandating that dominant platforms offer equal access to their facilities for rivals.

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There’s an implicit suggestion that companies would be broken up – though it’s not specified, one could see that Facebook and Instagram (and WhatsApp?) could be split apart. An ex-Facebook engineer is quoted saying that would be pretty easy. Drama lies ahead: now this idea is out there, lots can happen.
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White House quietly told Veterans group it might have exposed them to Covid • Daily Beast

Spencer Ackerman, Asawin Suebsaeng, Erin Banco and Sam Stein:

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On the same day President Trump acknowledged contracting the coronavirus, the White House quietly informed a veterans group that there was a COVID-19 risk stemming from a Sept. 27 event honoring the families of fallen US service members, the head of that charitable organization told The Daily Beast.

The White House warning, which came on [Friday] Oct. 2, is the earliest known outreach to visitors of the complex that there was a risk of coronavirus emerging from the grounds where the president, the first lady, and at least 17 of his aides, according to Politico, have now tested positive for the virus.

The Sept. 27 event to honor Gold Star families came the day after the White House hosted a celebration for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett that appears to have been an early source of the White House outbreak, though West Wing officials have quietly disputed that linkage. It is unclear to the head of the veterans charity—the Greatest Generations Foundation—which participant’s potential positive coronavirus test sparked the warning.

Pictures from the Gold Star family event, which Trump attended, show minimal mask wearing and social distancing. It took place indoors, though attendees said they were tested prior to attending. A Republican close to the White House also told The Daily Beast that others present at the event received outreach from a White House office—though not the medical office—late last week urging them to get coronavirus tests. The source described a chaotic scene in the White House as it tries to manage the internal outbreak.

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Indoors – the most dangerous place. The White House admitted that Hope Hicks was infected before it admitted that Trump was infected (I’m not saying “knew” for either, because there’s been so much lying about what was known). Trump spoke at the Veterans event, as the photos show.

Tentative conclusion: Trump was probably developing the disease at least on Sunday, and could have been shedding virus at that point, since it starts in the upper respiratory tract. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Quartz is put on the block just two years after sale • WSJ

Lukas I. Alpert and Benjamin Mullin:

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Online business news site Quartz has been put up for sale just over two years after it was acquired by a Japanese financial intelligence and media company, according to people familiar with the matter.

The company, Uzabase agreed to purchase Quartz in mid-2018 in a cash-and-stock deal that could have been worth as much as $110m based on whether the site hit certain financial goals. Uzabase ultimately only paid about $86m.

The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has also pushed Uzabase to seek an exit from the business, some of the people said.

Many digital-media companies have been working to cut costs and preserve capital, and the market for raising funds is tight, so it may prove challenging to find a buyer at an attractive price, one of the people said.

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Scrolling through qz.com, I’m not sure who it’s aiming at. What’s its USP? Why go there regularly? There seem to be a lot of sites like this.
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USB3: why it’s a bit harder than USB2 • kate’s lab notebook

Kate Temkin:

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A few people on twitter have asked me to explain why the USB3 winds up being much harder to implement than USB2. The answer is more than will fit in a single tweet, so I thought I’d put a quick-but-rough answer, here. This is by no means comprehensive; consider it a longer tweet what a tweet would be given I had more than 240 characters and a proclivity to babble. (I do.)

A lot of the challenges come from the way we work around physical-layer limitations. Put poetically, physics gives us lots of little obstacles we have to work around in order to talk at 5 billion transfers per second (5GT/s).

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This is extremely nerdy, but just scanning through it makes you realise that what looks simple – you just plug the cable into two sockets! – hides a colossal complexity that nevertheless happens reliably for almost all the systems you use.
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Facebook to ban QAnon-themed groups, pages and accounts in crackdown • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:

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Facebook will ban any groups, pages or Instagram accounts that “represent” QAnon, the company announced Tuesday, in a sharp escalation of its attempt to crack down on the antisemitic conspiracy movement that has thrived on its platform.

The policy will apply to groups, pages or Instagram accounts whose names or descriptions suggest that they are dedicated to the QAnon movement, a Facebook spokesperson explained. It will not apply to individual content, nor to individual Instagram users who post frequently about QAnon but do not explicitly identify themselves as representing the QAnon movement.

The new, broader ban represents the second update to Facebook’s policy against QAnon in less than two months, and signals that the company’s initial efforts were insufficient to curb the spread of a movement that has been identified as a potential domestic terror threat by the FBI.

Just two months ago, Facebook had no policy on QAnon, which is a baseless internet conspiracy theory whose followers believe, without evidence, that Donald Trump is waging a secret battle against an elite global cabal of child-traffickers.

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Let’s see how precise it gets. This has the potential to be very leaky. Still a good move, though.
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trump censored • The World Is Yours*

Alex Hern reckons that Trump is going to lose the election, and that Facebook’s (top) leadership thinks the same, and that this explains the deletion of a Trump post and the widespread action against QAnon:

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the timing is impossible to ignore. Facebook is a company which has bent over backwards to stay on the right side of the American Republican Party for the past four years, to the chagrin of its employees, and without really receiving much reciprocal love from the US Right itself, which continues to falsely claim that it is uniquely censored on social media.

It’s also led to the social network being completely out of sync with the rest of the world: if you position yourself as centrist in the nation with one of the most extreme ruling parties in the developed world, you position yourself as wildly out of touch in the rest of the world. In order to stay on the right side of the ruling regime in America, Facebook has needed to invent itself as a social network which sees no problem with handing fact checking responsibilities to a site such as the Daily Caller, and which thinks it is problematic if a list of respectable media outlets includes the New York Times but not Breitbart News.

I think Mark Zuckerberg made a calculated gamble, that staying on the right side of the Republican Party would protect Facebook from suffering at the hands of regulation it did not want. And I think the company is now starting to make a similar calculation: that it needs to begin severing those links.

«

The unprecedented deletion of Trump’s post, and the action against QAnon – which is a wildly pro-Trump delusion – definitely suggests that the weather inside Facebook is changing. Mark Zuckerberg can read polls as well as the rest of us.
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Meet the star witness: your smart speaker • WIRED

Sidney Fussell:

»

Earlier this month, Amazon said it had received more than 3,000 requests from police for user data in the first half of this year, and complied almost 2,000 times. That was a 72% increase in requests from the same period in 2016, when Amazon first disclosed the data, and a 24% jump in the past year alone.

Amazon doesn’t provide granular data on what police are seeking, but Douglas Orr, head of the criminal justice department at the University of North Georgia, says police now look for smart home data as routinely as data from smartphones. Data on a smartphone often points officers towards other devices, which they then probe as the investigation continues.

By amending a search warrant, police can “keep going to keep collecting data,” Orr says. “That usually leads to an Echo or at least some other device.”

As Orr explains, officers are getting more savvy about smart home devices, creating templates that simplify requesting data. Police departments often share these templates, he says, tailoring requests for the specifics of the case they’re investigating.

Google’s Nest unit reported increasing police demands for data from its smart speakers through 2018. Google then stopped reporting Nest data separately, including such requests in its broader corporate transparency report, which shows increased requests for Google user data.

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Predictable enough: get enough of these in homes and of course police are going to issue warrants for absolutely everything they might have had.
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Asbestos could be a powerful weapon against climate change (you read that right) • MIT Technology Review

James Temple:

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The vast surface area of certain types of fibrous asbestos, a class of carcinogenic compounds once heavily used in heat-resistant building materials, makes them particularly good at grabbing hold of the carbon dioxide molecules dissolved in rainwater or floating through the air.

That includes the most common form of asbestos, chrysotile, a serpentine mineral laced throughout the mountain (serpentine is California’s state rock). The reaction with carbon dioxide mainly produces magnesium carbonate minerals like magnesite, a stable material that could lock away the greenhouse gas for millennia.

Woodall and his advisor Jennifer Wilcox, a carbon removal researcher, are among a growing number of scientists exploring ways to accelerate these otherwise slow reactions in hopes of using mining waste to fight climate change. It’s a handy carbon-capturing trick that may also work with the calcium- and magnesium-rich by-products of nickel, copper, diamond, and platinum mining.

The initial hope is to offset the ample carbon emissions from mining itself using these minerals already extracted in the process. But the real hope is that this early work allows them to figure out how to effectively and affordably dig up minerals, potentially including asbestos, specifically for the purpose of drawing down vast amounts of greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.

“Decarbonizing mines in the next decade is just helping us to build confidence and know-how to actually mine for the purpose of negative emissions,” says Gregory Dipple, a professor at the University of British Columbia and one of the leading researchers in this emerging field.

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Negative emissions is the way to go. How amazing if asbestos (and other “tails” – the leftovers from mining – could somehow become a solution to carbon emissions.)
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Some former Triller employees are wary of monthly active-user count – Business Insider

Dan Whateley:

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The short-form-video app Triller, a TikTok rival, touted massive user growth last year that some former employees said they believed was inflated.

When Triller announced a fundraise in October 2019, it said it had grown 500% organically year over year to 13 million monthly active users.

Six former Triller employees said that number of monthly active users was more than five times what they were seeing on some internal metrics. One provided a screenshot that showed closer to 2 million monthly active users.

In August, Triller threatened to sue a third-party app-analytics company, Apptopia, after it provided estimates of Triller’s app downloads that contradicted the company’s publicly reported numbers.
Triller CEO Mike Lu said the former employees were “disseminating inaccurate information” to Business Insider. “We can validate each and every one of our 239M plus of them,” he added.

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Really? Validate 239 million users? That’s quite a claim.
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‘The coal industry is back,’ Trump proclaimed. It wasn’t • The New York Times

Eric Lipton (and lovely photos by Christie Hemm Klok):

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“We’re going to put our miners back to work,” Mr. Trump promised soon after taking office.

He didn’t.

Despite Mr. Trump’s stocking his administration with coal-industry executives and lobbyists, taking big donations from the industry, rolling back environmental regulations and intervening directly in cases like the Arizona power plant and mine, coal’s decline has only accelerated in recent years.

And with the president now in the closing stages of his struggling re-election campaign, his failure to live up to his pledge challenges his claim to be a champion of working people and to restore what he portrayed four years ago as the United States’ lost industrial might.

The story of the complex in Arizona demonstrates the lengths the administration went to in helping a favored industry, the limits of its ability to counter powerful economic forces pushing in the other direction and ultimately Mr. Trump’s quiet retreat from his promises.

…Since Mr. Trump was inaugurated, 145 coal-burning units at 75 power plants have been idled, eliminating 15% of the nation’s coal-generated capacity, enough to power about 30 million homes.

That is the fastest decline in coal-fuel capacity in any single presidential term, far greater than the rate during either of President Barack Obama’s terms. An additional 73 power plants have announced their intention to close additional coal-burning units this decade, according to a tally by the Sierra Club.

An estimated 20% of the power generated in the United States this year is expected to come from coal, down from 31% in 2017.

In part because of the coronavirus-induced recession, total coal production is expected to drop this year to 511m tons, down from 775m tons in 2017. That 34% decline is the largest four-year drop in production since at least 1932.

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Promises made, promises.. has he actually kept a single one of them?
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Tesla dissolves its PR department — a new first in the industry • Electrek

Fred Lambert:

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Electrek can confirm that Tesla has dissolved its PR department — technically becoming the first automaker who doesn’t talk to the press.

It’s something that we have discussed on our podcast several times over the last few months, but now that reporters are publicly complaining about it, we thought we’d clear things up in an article.

Tesla hasn’t responded to a press inquiry in months. We have received the odd email here and there from former press people, but it almost seems to be in an unofficial capacity.

If you’re a reporter who isn’t getting a response from Tesla, don’t take it personally, because it’s due to the automaker having dissolved its PR team.

The move has been confirmed to Electrek at the highest level at Tesla with the source saying, “We no longer have a PR Team.”

Keely Sulprizio, the last person known to officially be in charge of PR/communications at Tesla, left the automaker in December of last year to join Impossible Foods. Following her departure, virtually every other member of Tesla’s PR team either left or moved to other positions at Tesla.

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So really it’s just Elon Musk. Will he hire in an agency when there’s a new car to launch? And what about the times when there are investor calls – does investor relations pick up all the media queries? Should reporters buy a share so they can get an answer?
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Virtuix announces Omni One home VR treadmill • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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Virtual reality startup Virtuix is building a VR treadmill for your home. The Omni One is an elaborate full-body controller that lets you physically run, jump, and crouch in place. Following an earlier business- and arcade-focused device, it’s supposed to ship in mid-2021 for $1,995, and Virtuix is announcing the product with a crowdfunding investment campaign.

The crowdfunded Virtuix Omni started development in 2013. It’s not a traditional treadmill — it’s a low-friction platform that’s used with special low-friction shows or shoe covers and a harness. (You may remember the overall VR treadmill concept from Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One.) As an Omni One prototype video demonstrates, the device basically holds you in place while your feet slide across the platform, and that movement gets translated into a VR environment.

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Crowdfunding, eh. Virtuix has already tried that once and struggled to meet its targets (it didn’t) so I’m going to suggest that this is going to prove harder to pull off than it thinks. Also, it’s VR: the market will be smaller, so the production run will be small, which makes the chance of error greater.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1408: Uighur diaspora v Great Firewall, is Facebook preparing for Trump’s defeat?, the Big Tech report digested, and more

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