Start Up No.1417: US files antitrust lawsuit against Google, kill the chatbots!, Sweden nixes Huawei and ZTE 5G, peak streaming?, and more


YouTube upgraded to show 60 frames per second recently – and put top-quality video out of reach for half of UK households. CC-licensed photo by Sean MacEntee on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

US accuses Google of illegally protecting monopoly • The New York Times

David McCabe, Cecilia Kang and Daisuke Wakabayashi:

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The Justice Department accused Google of illegally protecting its monopoly over search and search advertising in a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, the government’s most significant legal challenge to a tech company’s market power in a generation.

In a 57-page complaint, filed in the US District Court in the District of Columbia, the agency accused Google of locking out competition in search by obtaining several exclusive business contracts and agreements. Google’s deals with Apple, mobile carriers and other handset makers to place its search engine as the default option for consumers accounted for most of its dominant market share in search, the agency said, a figure that it put at around 80 percent.

“For many years,” the suit said, “Google has used anticompetitive tactics to maintain and extend its monopolies in the markets for general search services, search advertising and general search text advertising — the cornerstones of its empire.”

The lawsuit signals a new era for the technology sector. It reflects pent-up and bipartisan frustration toward a handful of companies — Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook in particular — that have morphed from small and scrappy companies into global powerhouses with outsize influence over commerce, speech, media and advertising. Conservatives like President Trump and liberals like Senator Elizabeth Warren have called for more restraints over Big Tech.

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Here’s the lawsuit. And here’s Google’s blogpost in response, titled “A deeply flawed blogpost that would do nothing to help consumers”.

So. A little history. When Google was being sued by the EC in 2010 over its suppression of shopping comparison sites – beginning with the British company Foundem – I thought the EC was making the right move, and focusing on the correct topic: that Google was manipulating search to favour its own products over what consumers evidently wanted. Effectively, that’s annexation: using your power in the market to push others out of an adjacent market.

I thought the EC lawsuit against Google over tying Google services to Android was reasonable, too. It’s a slightly different situation – an effective monopsony: Google’s the only useful supplier for Android that people want outside China. (Ask Huawei.) The OEMs would all have to defect from Google to have any effect; and defection back would be more profitable.

But this? This is nonsense. There’s no law against being a monopoly in the US. The 1998 lawsuit against Microsoft was about tying the provision of Windows to the use of Internet Explorer – when browsers were a new technology. IBM nearly missed out on the whole Windows95 launch because it resisted.

The FTC had an excellent chance to act on this right back in 2013 but whiffed it. If the DoJ and the states really want to make their case work, they should revisit that casework. But it wasn’t about being a monopoly. It was about suppressing rivals in shopping search.

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Apple iPhone 12 Review: superfast speed, if you can find it • The New York Times

Brian Chen spent ages trying to find 5G, and when he did it was basically to try out the Speedtest app; there’s no real use for 5G. Then there’s the rest of the phone:

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Apple also said it had strengthened the display glass, making it four times less likely to break. It’s difficult to test that scientifically, but I dropped the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro several times by accident on hard surfaces. They survived without any scuffs.

Also new is a charging mechanism that Apple calls MagSafe. It’s basically a new standard to support faster charging via magnetic induction. The new standard will open doors to other companies to make accessories that magnetically attach to iPhones, such as miniature wallets.

I tested both the MagSafe charger and Apple’s MagSafe wallet. But I preferred charging with a normal wire because it was faster, as well as carrying my own wallet, because it can hold more cards.

There’s a major downside to all of the new features: We have to pay a lot for these phones. Apple is also no longer including charging bricks or earphones with the new iPhones since so many people already own power bricks and fancy wireless earbuds. While that will lead to less waste, this shift and the price jump may annoy plenty of people.

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There’s also Nilay Patel’s review at The Verge, which looks in more detail at the camera quality. He and his video producer are enthusiastic.
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Sweden bans Huawei, ZTE From new 5G infrastructure • Bloomberg

Niclas Rolander and Veronica Ek:

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Sweden has banned Huawei Technologies and ZTE from gaining access to its fifth-generation wireless network, adding to the increasing number of European governments forcing local telecom companies to shift away from Chinese suppliers.

The Swedish Post and Telecom Authority said in a statement Tuesday that the “influence of China’s one-party state over the country’s private sector brings with it strong incentives for privately owned companies to act in accordance with state goals and the communist party’s national strategies.”

The authority said that the two Chinese technology giants’ equipment must be removed from existing infrastructure used for 5G frequencies by January 2025.

The US has described Huawei as the “backbone” of surveillance efforts by the Chinese communist party, and is pressuring European governments to block the technology company from gaining access to 5G networks. The UK has already imposed an outright ban on Huawei’s 5G equipment, while German Chancellor Angela Merkel has so far hesitated to follow suit.

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Another domino falls. Significant that it’s banning ZTE as well. Though of course Sweden doesn’t have to look far to find a network supplier: Ericsson is home-grown. Or it can give Nokia, in neighbouring Finland, a call.
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Bug of the Day: Youtube broke for 40% of the UK population after rolling out 60 FPS videos • The HFT Guy

“The HFT guy” is a developer in London:

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This week we’re going to talk about how YouTube broke HD for me and about 40% the UK population, give or take.

I moved to a newer home earlier this year and like most places in the UK (even in London) it only had broadband internet aka slow ADSL over copper. It’s pushing a good 4.2 Mbps, sometimes up to 4.6 Mbps on a good day.

YouTube decided to rollout 60 FPS videos by default to everyone. It came in effect automatically for most videos published over the past couple years.

Have a look at quality setting and see what pops up. If the video is relatively recent the options are usually limited to: 1080p60, 720p60, 480p …

There’s no setting and there’s no opt-out to get back to 30 FPS. Like all software updates lately, the switch happened and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Problem: 60 FPS video requires roughly 50% more bandwidth than 30 FPS video.

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Problem arising from the fact that about 45% of UK households have a connection speed lower than 8Mbps, and you need above that for 1080p60fps; but only half that (which would work with most of the country) for 1080p30fps. It would be good if Google allowed a fallback to 30fps, but it doesn’t seem to be doing that.
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My chatbot is dead, and why yours should probably be too • Adrian Z

Adrian Zumbrunnen:

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let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment: when did you actually ever enjoy talking to a chat bot? And I’m not talking about the type of bots you talk to when you’re bored, but about those that provide a deeper purpose.

It turns out that the answer is, at least for most of us, almost never.

I love you Intercom, except when I don’t. 99% of time I don’t want to talk to a silly and obtrusive avatar popping up from some corner of the screen before I even had a chance to check out what’s going on. Somehow, I can’t help but think others feel the same.

In fact, we do know that others feel the same. Chat heads jumping at us unasked, are the quintessential equivalent of the infamous sales clerk who eagerly talks to us upon entering a store.

To further add to the challenges: as soon as users go off-script, chat bot’s don’t just become awkward and unpredictable—they turn into little sociopaths that might rub users the wrong way.

The moment you create a chat bot is the moment you allow customers to have a conversation with your brand. Not with yourself, not with your friend, but with an uber entity—a symbol—that represents everything you and your team stand for. That’s not a step to be taken lightly.

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Personally, I never ever ever wanted to talk to a chatbot. You know that it’s only an intermediate step towards dealing with a real human, or using a website with an interface you can navigate with your eyes, rather than an Adventure-style guessing game.

But they seem to be on the way out, so that’s something.
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Expanding AI’s impact with organizational learning • MIT Sloan Review

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Organizations that learn with AI have three essential characteristics:

1. They facilitate systematic and continuous learning between humans and machines. Organizational learning with AI isn’t just machines learning autonomously. Or humans teaching machines. Or machines teaching humans. It’s all three. Organizations that enable humans and machines to continuously learn from each other with all three methods are five times more likely to realize significant financial benefits than organizations that learn with a single method.

2. They develop multiple ways for humans and machines to interact. Humans and machines can and should interact in different ways depending on the context. Mutual learning with AI stems from these human-machine interactions. Deploying the appropriate interaction mode(s) in the appropriate context is critical. For example, some situations may require an AI system to make a recommendation and humans to decide whether to implement it. Some context-rich environments may require humans to generate solutions and AI to evaluate the quality of those solutions. We consider five ways to structure human-machine interactions. Organizations that effectively use all five modes of interaction are six times as likely to realize significant financial benefits compared with organizations effective at a single mode of interaction.

3. They change to learn, and learn to change. Structuring human and machine interactions to learn through multiple methods requires significant, and sometimes uncomfortable, change. Organizations that make extensive changes to many processes are five times more likely to gain significant financial benefits compared with those that make only some changes to a few processes. These organizations don’t just change processes to use AI; they change processes in response to what they learn with AI.

Organizational learning with AI demands, builds on, and leads to significant organizational change.

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This sounds to me, without knowing the detail of the organisations, like they’re obliged to change to fit with the demands of the AI, rather as organisations had to become more computer-like to better adjust to the broader use of computers. How many people in a day do you hear say “just got to enter a few details into the computer, be with you in a minute…”
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Are we reaching peak streaming subscriptions? • Billboard

Will Page:

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Have we reached “peak subscription streaming” in the way that some scientists fear that we’re approaching “peak oil,” the theoretical point at which more oil has been extracted from the earth than remains in it? The streaming situation is far less grim — peak oil assumes that production will decline, while streaming-subscription numbers will presumably stop growing but not decrease — but there’s one important parallel. Just as we’re running out of “easy oil” and the price of a barrel increases as we move from drilling wells to more expensive extraction methods like fracking, we’re also running out of what we might call “easy subscribers”: young, tech-savvy music fans, many of whom have smartphones with iOS, which makes commerce easy. Finding more will require marketing, whether that means courting more Android users, selling skeptics on the value of music streaming or trying to take subscribers from other companies — which costs money. It could also put pressure on services to lower prices, at precisely the point when they also have an incentive to raise them in order to show bottom-line growth.

To get a sense of what’s ahead, it’s worth looking at two markets that adapted to streaming early, Sweden and Norway, which make some of these concerns look a bit like the boy who cried wolf. Since 2015, when analysts first began predicting that music streaming services were running out of potential subscribers, the music business consultancy MIDiA estimates subscription numbers are up 85% in Sweden and 78% in Norway.

Then again, remember what happened to that boy who cried wolf in the end? It could be that the predator is still on his way — he just hasn’t quite arrived yet.

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In possibly related news, Netflix said subscriber growth slowed in the most recent quarter. (Via Benedict Evans’s newsletter.)
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Democratic super PAC Future Forward and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz are spending $100 million against Trump • Vox

Theodore Schleifer:

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A little-known Democratic super PAC backed by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest donors is quietly unleashing a torrent of television spending in the final weeks of the presidential campaign in a last-minute attempt to oust President Donald Trump, Recode has learned.

The barrage of late money — which includes at least $22m from Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz — figures among one of the most expensive and aggressive plays yet by tech billionaires, who have spent years studying how to maximize the return they get from each additional dollar they spend on politics. Moskovitz is placing his single biggest public bet yet on the evidence that TV ads that come just before Election Day are the best way to do that.

The super PAC, called Future Forward, has remained under the radar but is spending more than $100m on television and digital in the final month of the campaign — more than any other group — on behalf of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden outside of the Biden campaign itself.

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What better way, when you deeply desire your advertising spend to have a meaningful effect, than to demonstrate the targeting power of advertising on the platform that you’ve helped create by *checks notes* using a completely different one.
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The mystery of the immaculate concussion • GQ

Julia Ioffe:

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[US CIA official in charge of blocking Russian counterintel work, Marc] Polymeropoulos was stunned by how unabashedly combative his Russian counterparts were. He had spent his career in a region where people were exceedingly polite, rolling out banquets and plying him with tea, even as he knew they were plotting to kill him. He knew the Russians didn’t like him, but “I would have expected them to be a little more polite,” Polymeropoulos told me.

Nonetheless, he figured that this was little more than bluster. He knew he had to be careful in Russia and to be wary of Russian agents trying to entrap him in compromising situations—for example, the beautiful young women at the rooftop bar of the Moscow Ritz-Carlton who seemed determined to chat up him and his colleague. But Polymeropoulos figured he had no reason to fear for his physical safety. Even after that awful night in the Marriott, Polymeropoulos did not immediately suspect anything malicious. By morning, the worst of the symptoms had passed and he seemed to be doing better, confirming his suspicion that it had just been something he’d eaten. Just a few hours after he’d been incapacitated, he managed to get on a train to St. Petersburg, where he felt well enough to walk for miles, duck into more dive bars, and even glimpse the famous troll factory. He even did some Christmas shopping for his wife and kids. That miserable, terrifying night in his Moscow hotel room receded in his memory.

Two days before the end of his trip, Polymeropoulos and his colleagues were eating dinner at Pushkin, a posh Moscow restaurant, when he suddenly felt the room begin to spin again, just as it had in the hotel room that night. A wave of nausea hit, and he was suddenly drenched in sweat. He barely made it back to his hotel room, where, having canceled all his meetings, he stayed for the rest of his trip, unable to move. His body was in revolt, and he had no idea why. “I made it back on the airplane somehow,” Polymeropoulos said.

It wasn’t until Polymeropoulos got home to the Virginia suburbs that it occurred to him that what had happened in Moscow was possibly the result of something far more sinister that what he’d originally suspected. In February, after a few weeks of relative normalcy, he started feeling an intense and painful pressure that started in the back of his head and radiated forward into his face.

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Given Russians’ proclivities, wonder if this and other cases was very low-grade chemical poisoning, not some sort of radiation.
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Attack-dog journalism is bad for democracy • UnHerd

Sarah Ditum on the popular response to New Zealand TV journalist Tova O’Brien demolishing failed political candidate Jami-Lee Ross:

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Perhaps it doesn’t matter very much in the case of Ross. Advance got less than 1% of the vote, so you can hardly think of him as the representative of New Zealand’s Covid-denying left-behinds. More worrying is the idea that O’Brien is some kind of role model for journalists — “the way it should be done”. What she offers is the stupefaction of a cheap pleasure, which is fine once in a while, but nothing you can live on. Turn this approach on an actually popular populist, rather than a sadsack failure content to soak up the last moments of his dead career, and you’d quickly have a polarised nightmare.

Rather than attack people as liars or presume their bad faith, Ripley suggests journalists should look for ways to open conversations: instead of telling people what they think, ask them about why they believe the things they do. Often, the things that people seem to be at odds over are just proxies for underlying issues; and sometimes, those underlying issues are more tractable than you ever expected.

It’s even possible that the questioner could be the one to change their mind about something.

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I think this is wrong. Take Jonathan Swann’s interview with Trump: while Swann didn’t cut Trump off for talking nonsense, he absolutely did call him on his nonsense because he knew the indisputable facts. Ditto Chris Wallace, who had been wily enough to take the mental aptitude test that Trump was going to boast about, and so could contradict Trump from a position of knowledge.

The common thread in all three: being prepared with knowledge of what the facts are, and not being prepared to take dissembling crap around it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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