Start Up No.1409: Sweden’s pandemic response examined, Supremes considers Google v Oracle, hacking Apple, how deadly is Covid?, and more


You’re looking at the most popular app for American teens. (Don’t tell Trump.) CC-licensed photo by Solen Feyissa 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. Not part of a conspiracy to kidnap Facebook. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

TikTok passes Instagram as second-most popular social app for US teens • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:

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TikTok has surpassed Instagram as U.S. teenagers’ second-favorite social media app, according to a report published Tuesday. 

The short-video app is now favored among teens second only to Snap’s Snapchat, according to Piper Sandler. The report found that 34% of teens list Snapchat as their favorite social app followed with 29% picking TikTok. Trailing Snapchat and TikTok was Facebook’s Instagram, with only 25% of teens picking it as their favorite social app. TikTok placed No. 3 in the spring 2020 version of the Piper Sandler report. 

Usage was a different story, according to the report. In that regard, Instagram remains in first place with 84% engagement, followed by Snapchat at 80% and TikTok at 69%, up from 62% in the spring.

The report shows TikTok is continuing to gain market share among young U.S. users, which are a key demographic for social apps. These users are next a key demographic for advertisers, which are the main source of revenue for social apps. 

To circumvent the growing TikTok threat, Facebook in August released Reels, a copycat version of TikTok that lets Instagram users make short video clips of them lip syncing, dancing or doing skits. 

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Haven’t seen any evidence that Reels is capturing any interest, but maybe it’s too soon. TikTok’s algorithm, though, is clearly the first wave of an entirely new sort of app: it generates its network purely from what you’re interested in, not who you know.
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Facebook just forced its most powerful critics offline • Vice

David Gilbert:

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Facebook is using its vast legal muscle to silence one of its most prominent critics.

The Real Facebook Oversight Board, a group established last month in response to the tech giant’s failure to get its actual Oversight Board up and running before the presidential election, was forced offline on Wednesday night after Facebook wrote to the internet service provider demanding the group’s website — realfacebookoversight.org — be taken offline.

The group is made up of dozens of prominent academics, activists, lawyers, and journalists whose goal is to hold Facebook accountable in the run-up to the election next month. Facebook’s own Oversight Board, which was announced 13 months ago, will not meet for the first time until later this month, and won’t consider any issues related to the election.

In a letter sent to one of the founders of the RFOB, journalist Carole Cadwalladr, the ISP SupportNation said the website was being taken offline after Facebook complained that the site was involved in “phishing.”

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There was quite a back-and-forth on Twitter between Carole Cadwalladr, who helped organise the RFOB, and Andy Stone, who does “communications” for Facebook, over this. “You thing that accuses us of fake things was caught in our thing to prevent fake things”, Stone tweeted at her. Text kills nuance, but the tone seemed pretty snide; it’s not a good look.
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‘It’s been so, so surreal’: critics of Sweden’s lax pandemic policies face fierce backlash • Science

Gretchen Vogel with a long, in-depth piece of reporting about the country that is seen either as a shining example or a complete screwup on Covid:

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[The Swedish public health authority] FoHM’s decision to keep schools open despite surging cases may also have added to the spread. A report from the agency itself, released in July, compared Sweden with Finland, which closed its schools between March and May, and concluded that “closing of schools had no measurable effect on the number of cases of COVID-19 in children.” But few Swedish children were tested in that period, even if they had COVID-19 symptoms. And the lack of contact tracing means there are no data about whether cases spread in schools or not. When new FoHM guidelines allowed symptomatic children to be tested in June, cases in children shot up—from fewer than 20 per week in late May to more than 100 in the second week of June. (FoHM reversed course in July and returned to recommending that children under 16 not be tested.)

Indirect data suggest children in Sweden were infected far more often than their Finnish counterparts. The FoHM report says 14 Swedish kids were admitted to intensive care with COVID-19, versus one in Finland, which has roughly half as many schoolchildren. In Sweden, at least 70 children have been diagnosed with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a rare complication of COVID-19, versus fewer than five in Finland.

In the population as a whole, the impact of Sweden’s approach is unmistakable. More than 94,000 people have so far been diagnosed with COVID-19, and at least 5895 have died. The country has seen roughly 590 deaths per million—on par with 591 per million in the United States and 600 in Italy, but many times the 50 per million in Norway, 108 in Denmark, and 113 in Germany.

Another way to measure the pandemic’s impact is to look at “excess deaths,” the difference between the number of people who died this year and average deaths in earlier years. Those curves show Sweden did not suffer as many excess deaths as England and Wales—whose tolls were among Europe’s highest—but many more than Germany and its Nordic neighbors (see graphic, above). Immigrant communities were hit very hard. Between March and September, 111 people from Somalia and 247 from Syria died, compared with 5-year averages of 34 and 93, respectively.

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Google’s Supreme Court faceoff with Oracle was a disaster for Google • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

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The Supreme Court’s eight justices on Wednesday seemed skeptical of Google’s argument that application programming interfaces (APIs) are not protected by copyright law. The high court was hearing oral arguments in Google’s decade-long legal battle with Oracle. Oracle argues that Google infringed its copyright in the Java programming language when it re-implemented Java APIs for use by Android app developers.

The stakes in the case are high for Google, which could owe Oracle billions of dollars in damages. More importantly, an Oracle win could reshape how copyright law treats APIs, giving incumbents the power to lock out competitors who want to build compatible software.

For decades prior to Oracle’s lawsuit, most people in the software industry assumed that APIs couldn’t be copyrighted. That meant a software company could re-implement the APIs of a competitor’s product in order to enable software designed to work with the competitor’s product to work with its own.

A win for Oracle would call that into question. That would not only generate extra work for copyright lawyers, it could lead to a world where software compatibility problems crop up more often in everyday life.

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Again and again, the oral argument part of a Supreme Court hearing tends to be a poor guide to the eventual decisions. It seems to me that the judges (who will have read up about the topic thoroughly in advance) are just checking the soundness of arguments they might come to rely on themselves later, so when they seem to be tearing an argument apart they’re actually just stress-testing it.

What I don’t know – have I missed something obvious? – is whether they then gather around a fire or a bottle and argue it out collectively in a single group, or whether there’s one-on-one lobbying, or what.

Also: this case has been going on forever.
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Facebook to defy new Turkish social media law • Financial Times

Laura Pitel and Hannah Murphy:

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Facebook has decided to defy a new law in Turkey requiring social media companies to establish a formal presence in the country, setting the stage for a showdown with the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan that could culminate in the platform being blocked.

The San Francisco-based company informed the Turkish government in recent days that it would not be complying with the legislation, which went into force last week, said two people familiar with the matter. 

The decision will be welcomed by human rights campaigners who had urged technology companies not to bow to requirements that they described as “draconian” and a fresh attempt by Mr Erdogan’s government to muzzle free speech.

But it opens Facebook up to penalties including escalating fines and a reduction of its internet bandwidth by as much as 90% — a move that would make the platform impossibly slow to use for the 83m people living in Turkey.

Yaman Akdeniz, a Turkish academic and cyber rights campaigner said he was informed on Monday by a Facebook representative of the company’s decision. The social media group felt that the law was “a restrictive regime” that it did not want to be part of, he said. Facebook declined to comment.

Mr Erdogan, president, earlier this year declared that he wanted “immoral” social media platforms to be either “completely banned or controlled” after Twitter users posted harsh personal attacks against his daughter and son-in-law after the birth of their fourth child.

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Ah, so it’s just a bit of wild authoritarianism. But how do you tell the difference between that and perfectly reasonable content requests? It must be on a case-by-case basis, I guess. What happens if Turkey follows through and makes Facebook effectively inaccessible? Most likely people will hop onto VPNs. There’s a really powerful ratchet effect once Facebook and social media arrive: the public doesn’t like losing them.
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We hacked Apple for three months: here’s what we found • Sam Curry

Curry and four others were working as part of the Apple Bug Bounty program:

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During our engagement, we found a variety of vulnerabilities in core portions of their infrastructure that would’ve allowed an attacker to fully compromise both customer and employee applications, launch a worm capable of automatically taking over a victim’s iCloud account, retrieve source code for internal Apple projects, fully compromise an industrial control warehouse software used by Apple, and take over the sessions of Apple employees with the capability of accessing management tools and sensitive resources.

There were a total of 55 vulnerabilities discovered with 11 critical severity, 29 high severity, 13 medium severity, and 2 low severity reports. These severities were assessed by us for summarization purposes and are dependent on a mix of CVSS and our understanding of the business related impact.

As of October 6th, 2020, the vast majority of these findings have been fixed and credited. They were typically remediated within 1-2 business days (with some being fixed in as little as 4-6 hours).

…To be brief: Apple’s infrastructure is massive.

They own the entire 17.0.0.0/8 IP range, which includes 25,000 web servers with 10,000 of them under apple.com, another 7,000 unique domains, and to top it all off, their own TLD (dot apple). Our time was primarily spent on the 17.0.0.0/8 IP range, .apple.com, and .icloud.com since that was where the interesting functionality appeared to be.

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They seem to have had a lot of fun, though they don’t say how much money they collected from it. One of the most dramatic discoveries, via a flaw in the Pages app, gave access to iOS source code and to the Apple internal network.
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Facebook bans troll accounts linked to conservative group Turning Point USA • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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Facebook has removed a group of fake accounts tied to Turning Point USA, the conservative youth organization caught coordinating a “troll farm”-style social media campaign last month. The company’s latest report on coordinated inauthentic behavior says it banned 200 Facebook accounts, 55 pages, and 76 Instagram accounts linked to Turning Point and a marketing firm called Rally Forge, which is now banned from Facebook.

Facebook says it began its investigation after The Washington Post reported on “some elements” of the campaign in September. The operation apparently started in 2018 around the US midterm elections, then reappeared in June 2020 as the presidential election heated up. As the Post described, it focused on leaving coordinated Facebook comments — including ones supporting President Donald Trump, criticizing rival Joe Biden, questioning mail-in voting, and supporting sport hunting in Kenya and Botswana.

Turning Point characterized its operation as coordinated “sincere political activism conducted by real people who passionately hold the beliefs they describe online, not an anonymous troll farm in Russia.” But Facebook describes the most recent accounts it removed as “‘thinly veiled personas’ whose names were slight variations of the names of the people behind them,” and it says their “sole activity on our platform was associated with this deceptive campaign.” It also says the group spent around $973,000 advertising on Facebook and Instagram.

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The phrase “conservative youth organisation” is always a worrying one, and usually understates the extremity of the “conservative” thinking involved.

Not hearing about similar left-wing groups being removed from Facebook or Twitter. Have I just missed them?
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Coronavirus killed three times as many people as flu and pneumonia combined, figures show • Sky News

Emily Mee:

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Coronavirus caused three times more deaths than pneumonia and flu combined in the first eight months of this year, according to new figures.

There were 48,168 deaths due to COVID-19, 13,619 due to pneumonia and 394 deaths due to influenza in England and Wales between January and August, said the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

Out of all deaths during this period, COVID-19 accounted for 12.4%, whereas 0.1% were due to flu and 3.5% caused by pneumonia.

However, deaths caused by flu and pneumonia have been below the five-year average for every month between January and August this year.

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The BBC’s More Or Less programme did an excellent little segment on the claim by Trump (of course) that “actually, only 6% of people died of Covid [in the US]”. As they explained, what that means is that only 6% of those who died from Covid didn’t have any co-morbidities (obesity, heart disease, diabetes, etc). But they all had had Covid very soon before they died. Thus it was a cause of death, but the death certificate (in the UK as in the US) also lists contributing factors.
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Apple will extend free Apple TV+ trials for three months • CNBC

Kif Leswing:

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When Apple TV+ launched last fall, Apple bundled a free one-year subscription with the purchase of an Apple product, immediately boosting the number of people who could watch the streaming service. 

The first of those trial subscriptions were previously going to expire at the start of November, meaning that people on the one-year trial who had not cancelled were going to be charged $4.99 per month for the streaming service. 

Now subscribers whose trial expires before February will get three additional months of Apple TV+ for free. This means that someone who bought an iPhone on December 1 and activated Apple TV+ on the same day will have access to the service through March 1, when billing starts.

Apple has not revealed the number of Apple TV+ subscribers. The service has fewer TV shows and movies than rivals like Disney+, which surpassed 60 million subscribers in August after launching last November. Netflix has more than 190 million subscribers around the world, it said in July. But unlike those services, Apple TV+ doesn’t have a back catalog of reruns.

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Could be a sign that it doesn’t want people unsubscribing over Christmas, or that it has better stuff coming up at Christmas. Or that the cost of extending is essentially zero (which it is), so why not? And given that it has a ton of new products about to be released, the free ride can continue.
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IBM spins out infrastructure business in major shift towards cloud • Financial Times

Richard Waters and Miles Kruppa:

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The US computing giant said on Thursday that it planned to spin out its managed infrastructure services unit, which accounts for around a quarter of its revenue, into a freestanding company.

Big Blue’s share price jumped 8% on the news, as investors welcomed the spin-out of a business that has become a drag on IBM’s growth. A broad range of consulting and technology services accounted for nearly 60% of IBM’s revenue in the latest quarter, though these businesses have been shrinking steadily and faced relentless profit margin pressures. The company’s revenues have shrunk in 29 of the last 33 quarters.

“This is the end of IBM as we know it, as a single one-stop shop for enterprise technology,” said Holger Mueller, an analyst at Constellation Research. He called the announcement “a trial balloon” to see whether Wall Street would welcome an unwinding of the entire services operation, and predicted further spin-offs to come.

IBM moved heavily into services after Lou Gerstner was parachuted in from outside the tech industry to save what was then a struggling mainframe business at the start of the PC era. He made services the linchpin of a turnround, appealing to customers who needed help stitching together their IT as PCs, servers and new business applications.

However, the rise of cloud computing has seen customers steadily reduce their spending on in-house technology, shifting more of their IT budgets to cloud companies such as Amazon and Microsoft.

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The phrase used to be that “No one ever got fired for buying IBM”. Long since past; that figure about shrinking revenue shows how many options companies now have for getting things done. Last year IBM bought RedHat – for $34bn! – and has just reported quarterly revenues of $17.6bn and a gross profit margin of 48%. (Apple’s is typically around 38%.) It’s lucrative, but competitive.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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