Start Up No.1416: Google’s antitrust redux, how a Trumpite got ZTE out of US sanctions, how climate change killed early humans, and more


“How track and trace works” now needs to include “and data passed to the police”. CC-licensed photo by Coventry City Council on Flickr.

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

How does Google’s monopoly hurt you? Try these searches • The Washington Post

Geoffrey Fowler:

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Let’s Google together. Open a Web browser and search for “T-shirts”. I’ll wait.

Is the first thing you see a search result? I’m not talking about the stuff labeled Ads or Maps. On my screen, the actual result is not in the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh or even eighth row of stuff. It’s buried on row nine.

Googling didn’t used to require so much … scrolling. On some searches, it’s like Where’s Waldo but for information. Without us even realizing it, the Internet’s most-used website has been getting worse. On too many queries, Google is more interested in making search lucrative than a better product for us.

There’s one reason it gets away with this, according to a recent congressional investigation: Google is so darn big. An impending antitrust lawsuit from the US Justice Department is expected to make a similar point.

How does Google’s alleged monopoly hurt you? Today, 88% of all searches happen on Google, in part because contracts make it the default on computers and phones. But whether Google is actually fetching you good information can be hard to see. First, Googling is easy and free, which blinds everyone a bit. Second, we don’t have a great alternative for broad Web searches — Microsoft’s rival Bing doesn’t have enough data to compete well. (This is the problem of monopolies in the information age.)

Over the last two decades, Google has made changes in drips rather than big makeovers. To see how search results have changed, what you’d need is a time machine. Good news: We have one of those!
The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine stored some Google search results over the years. When we look back, a picture emerges of how Google increasingly fails us. There’s more space dedicated to ads that look like search results. More results start with answer “snippets” — sometimes incorrect — ripped from other sites. And increasingly, results point you back to Google’s own properties such as Maps and YouTube, where it can show more ads and gather more of your data.

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The FTC looked at some elements of this back in 2010-13, and decided that it couldn’t take action over Google favouring its own properties, because consumers weren’t harmed through higher prices. If the DoJ and state AGs are going to take action now, they need to explain what their new antitrust doctrine is, because there haven’t been any court cases I’ve seen in the US which back up that change in doctrine. In Europe, it’s embedded as part of the requirement for a “competitive market”.

By the way, I assume Fowler’s talking about a phone screen. On my computer screen, the first organic link is the sixth element (after a gallery, map, and three shop links).
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The China ambassador’s son who got rich in Trump’s swamp • The Intercept

Mara Hvistendahl and Lee Fang on how ZTE – the company that’s not Huawei which broke US sanctions to sell telecoms equipment to Iran, and was put on the sanctioned list in April 2018 under which it was banned from buying American parts (essentially, the same death sentence that Huawei later received).

But then it was reprieved. Here’s how:

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ZTE’s path back into business with American suppliers has long been shrouded in mystery. Some critics highlighted the role of lobbyists working for ZTE. Shortly after the Commerce Department penalized ZTE, a law firm representing the Chinese company started paying the lobbying outfit Mercury Public Affairs $75,000 a month to unwind the order. Mercury partner and former Trump campaign adviser Bryan Lanza took on the account. But an Intercept investigation has found that Lanza traveled to China with a Mercury colleague and fellow Trump campaign veteran: former Commerce Department official Eric Branstad, who is also the son of Terry Branstad, then Trump’s ambassador to China.

Eric Branstad was close with Trump and had joined Mercury just three months earlier, after a stint advising Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. He had a checkered past, marred by killing two people in a car crash when he was a teenager, and had made money off his relationships with his father and Trump. In his home state of Iowa, his activities would spark comparisons to Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Three days after Trump’s curious tweet, Lanza began emailing and calling officials at the Commerce Department on ZTE’s behalf. In June, he and Eric Branstad traveled to Beijing for meetings with Chinese government groups, including a chamber of commerce established by the Chinese Communist Party’s influential United Front Work Department that has ties to large Chinese companies. ZTE is an executive board member of a closely affiliated group.

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This well-researched story came out last Thursday. A poorly researched story on a similar topic, but not about Trump, came out the same day. Guess which one got the attention?
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Climate change likely drove early human species to extinction, modeling study suggests • Phys.org

Cell Press:

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“Our findings show that despite technological innovations including the use of fire and refined stone tools, the formation of complex social networks, and—in the case of Neanderthals—even the production of glued spear points, fitted clothes, and a good amount of cultural and genetic exchange with Homo sapiens, past Homo species could not survive intense climate change,” says Pasquale Raia of Università di Napoli Federico II in Napoli, Italy. “They tried hard; they made for the warmest places in reach as the climate got cold, but at the end of the day, that wasn’t enough.”

To shed light on past extinctions of Homo species including H. habilis, H. ergaster, H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, H. neanderthalensis, and H. sapiens, the researchers relied on a high-resolution past climate emulator, which provides temperature, rainfall, and other data over the last 5 million years. They also looked to an extensive fossil database spanning more than 2,750 archaeological records to model the evolution of Homo species’ climatic niche over time. The goal was to understand the climate preferences of those early humans and how they reacted to changes in climate.

Their studies offer robust evidence that three Homo species—H. erectus, H. heidelbergensis, and H. neanderthalensis—lost a significant portion of their climatic niche just before going extinct. They report that this reduction coincided with sharp, unfavorable changes in the global climate. In the case of Neanderthals, things were likely made even worse by competition with H. sapiens.

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So let’s try running the experiment again, but with just H.sapiens, and see how things go.
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Google kills off app that let you find loved ones’ location during an emergency • The Verge

Ian Carlos Campbell:

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Google will discontinue its emergency location sharing app Trusted Contacts in December, and has already yanked it from the Google Play Store. Instead, it’s directing existing users to try similar but less helpful features in Google Maps. That’s a shame, because while Trusted Contacts could let you find a family member even if they don’t respond (say, if they are unconscious or in danger), Google Maps requires them to proactively broadcast their location to you.

The announcement was quite abrupt [saying, in effect, “we’ve built the functionality directly into Google Maps with Location Sharing”].

Google Maps has been able to do real time location sharing since 2017, but again, you have to opt-in to constant tracking, sharing your location with other people all the time instead of only broadcasting it to loved ones if you don’t respond. Trusted Contacts, by comparison, allows you to add people to your contacts who you’d like to instantly share your locations with in case of emergency. If one arises, your contacts can request a status update to see if you’re alright and you can respond with your location to reassure them. If you don’t respond, the app automatically shares your last known location so they can send for help.

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It’s a tough choice: do you have more and more and more apps, or do you roll all the functionality into one incredibly widely used app (Maps has more than a billion users)? Trusted Contacts definitely had more useful functionality, closer to the surface. And most people really don’t dig very far into apps at all.
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Police get access to people told to self-isolate by NHS test and trace • The Guardian

Jedidajah Otte:

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People who have been told to self-isolate through NHS test and trace could have their contact details passed to police, a move some fear could deter people from being tested for coronavirus.

Police forces will be able to access information about people “on a case-by-case” basis, so they can learn whether an individual has been told to self-isolate, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHCS) said.

England made it a legal requirement for people to self-isolate if they test positive for coronavirus. Those who fail to do so face fines starting at £1,000, while repeat offenders or those committing serious breaches could receive fines of up to £10,000, according to the DHSC.

The department updated its online guidance on Friday about how coronavirus testing data will be handled.

People who fail to self-isolate “without reasonable justification” could have their name, address and contact details passed to their local authority and then to the police, the DHSC’s website said.

…Ed Davey, the Liberal Democrat leader, said ministers should “reverse the policy urgently”, calling it a “huge mistake”.

“Anything that further undermines the public’s dwindling trust in this government’s handling of the pandemic is damaging, and few things could have been better designed to do that than this,” he said.

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What’s next? Getting people to wear tags? At least T&T is about theoretical contact with people who have tested positive, rather than the super-vague app warnings. If they start sharing the latter, the whole system will collapse from mistrust.
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As local news dies, a pay-for-play network rises in its place • The New York Times

Davey Alba and Jack Nicas:

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The instructions were clear: Write an article calling out Sara Gideon, a Democrat running for a hotly contested U.S. Senate seat in Maine, as a hypocrite.

Angela Underwood, a freelance reporter in upstate New York, took the $22 assignment over email. She contacted the spokesman for Senator Susan Collins, the Republican opponent, and wrote an article on his accusations that Ms. Gideon was two-faced for criticizing shadowy political groups and then accepting their help.

The short article was published on Maine Business Daily, a seemingly run-of-the-mill news website, under the headline “Sen. Collins camp says House Speaker Gideon’s actions are hypocritical.” It extensively quoted Ms. Collins’s spokesman but had no comment from Ms. Gideon’s campaign.

Then Ms. Underwood received another email: The “client” who had ordered up the article, her editor said, wanted it to add more detail.

The client, according to emails and the editing history reviewed by The New York Times, was a Republican operative.

Maine Business Daily is part of a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country. Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found.

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Oligarchs gonna oligarch. Now that the media ecosystem has collapsed, there’s a clear road for this sort of distortion. Some hilarious details in the story – such as the reporter who says he’s not allowed to talk to reporters. Questions not answered in the story, but maybe there’ll be a followup: does Google downrank these as junk in “news” searches? Does Facebook?
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A profanity filter banned the word ‘bone’ at a paleontology conference • Vice

Becky Ferreira:

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Participants in a virtual paleontology meeting were not permitted to use the words “bone,” “sexual,” or “Hell” in early digital Q&A sessions, sparking amusement and frustration from researchers attending the online conference.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) opted to hold its annual meeting, which runs from Monday to Friday this week, as a virtual event. At the end of presentations, attendees can ask written questions, but it quickly became apparent that some words and phrases—including many that are utterly ubiquitous in paleontology—were verboten.

The platform that the virtual meeting used, provided by Convey Services, came with “a pre-packaged naughty-word-filter,” explained Stephanie Drumheller, a paleontologist at the University of Tennessee and a member of the SVP, in an r/askscience Reddit thread about the meeting on Wednesday.

“After getting a good belly laugh out of the way on the first day and some creative wording (my personal favorite was Heck Creek for Hell Creek), some of us reached out to the business office and they’ve been un-banning words as we stumble across them,” she added. “It takes a little time to filter from Twitter to the platform programmers, but it’s getting fixed slowly.”

Convey Services was not immediately available to comment.

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Ah, the Scunthorpe problem raises its ugly head. Oops. (Thanks Jim for the pointer.)
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The Citizen Browser project: auditing the algorithms of disinformation • The Markup

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At the center of The Citizen Browser Project is a custom web browser designed by The Markup to audit the algorithms that social media platforms use to determine what information they serve their users, what news and narratives are amplified or suppressed, and which online communities those users are encouraged to join. Initially, the browser will be implemented to glean data from Facebook and YouTube.

A nationally representative panel of 1,200 people will be paid to install the custom web browser on their desktops, which allows them to share real-time data directly from their Facebook and YouTube accounts with The Markup. Data collected from this panel will form statistically valid samples of the American population across age, race, gender, geography, and political affiliation, which will lead to important insights about how Facebook’s and YouTube’s algorithms operate. To protect the panel’s privacy, The Markup will remove personally identifiable information collected by the panel and discard it, only using the remaining redacted data in its analyses.

“Social media platforms are the broadcasting networks of the 21st century,” said The Markup’s editor-in-chief, Julia Angwin. “They dictate what news the public consumes with black box algorithms designed to maximize profits at the expense of truth and transparency. The Citizen Browser Project is a powerful accountability check on that system that can puncture the filter bubble and point the public toward a more free and democratic discourse.”

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I wonder how long it will take for Facebook to run a browser detection tool and try to block this sort of auditing.
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The Top 10 of… technologies that are just about to solve big problems but probably won’t ever work • The Independent

John Rentoul, who I used to work with long ago at The Independent, is reliably sceptical:

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This list started in 2018 as a joke about max fac, short for maximum facilitation, which was Theresa May’s magic way of making the border between Northern Ireland and the republic disappear. I compared it to other wonderful technologies that hadn’t been invented yet, such as carbon capture and storage and self-driving cars.

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The list includes carbon capture & storage, nuclear fusion, blockchain and more. It’s actually pretty hard to refute any of them. (Particularly hydrogen power.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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