Start Up No.1449: Facebook’s creepy ad problem, why gigabit broadband?, Cydia sues Apple over app store, credit cards dump Pornhub, and more


Apple’s Fitness+ service will have something much more (or less) strenuous from Monday. CC-licensed photo by Underway In Ireland on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Fit! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook profits as users are ripped off by scam ads • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman and Ryan Mac:

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Two years ago, a handful of Facebook employees began to raise internal alarms about a series of advertisements appearing in their news feeds. Purchased by a then up-and-coming lip-synching app called Musical.ly — now known as TikTok — the ads featured teenage girls provocatively gyrating to music in short video clips.

Curious as to why he and his colleagues were seeing ads ostensibly meant for young girls, one Facebook employee, who was also a father, dug into the company’s advertising system at the time to determine what was going on. What he discovered wasn’t an error, but Facebook’s advertising system working as intended. The social network’s algorithms had been optimizing the ads for the audience interacting with them the most: middle-aged men.

Initial complaints about the ads, which continued after Musical.ly was acquired and turned into TikTok, were rebuffed. TikTok, which reportedly spent $1 billion on advertising in 2018, was a valued business partner, one employee was told by higher-ups. Another person in a position to know told BuzzFeed News that a Facebook manager’s response to the concerns was to restrict access to data about the ads’ targeting.

The ads persisted for at least a year and a half — long after they had been publicly flagged in Facebook’s Workplace forum. Following publication of this story company spokesperson Joe Osborne disputed this timeline, saying “This isn’t accurate, we first learned about this is in 2019, not 2017.”

“It’s so weird that I only hear my 8-year old nieces talk about tiktok, but then see these ads with voluptuous young ladies targeted to men over 35 years old,” one Facebook data scientist wrote on the company’s internal message board last year. “Are we indeed making sure Facebook is not creating a predator’s paradise?”

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This is quite a creepy story altogether.
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Apple’s Jay Blahnik on how Fitness+ can make exercise easier • Fast Company

Mark Sullivan:

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with Apple’s new Fitness+ subscription workout service, the [Apple] Watch’s exercise heritage extends off the wrist and onto the larger screens of iPads and TVs, and adds 21 human instructors whose workout sessions are available on demand. The Apple Watch is central to Fitness+; the service doesn’t work nearly so well without it.

“We feel like this is an iteration of the things we’ve been doing since the very beginning, which is to try to make it easier for people to be motivated and inspired to be more active and more fit, and so it fits right into that,” Apple’s head of fitness tech Jay Blahnik tells me. Blahnik is known for developing fitness devices and apps at Nike, and for his work on the Nike+ Running app in the mid-2000s. He now leads the development of Fitness+ at Apple.

The on-demand workouts, which you view on your iPhone, iPad, or home TV, feature a wide array of exercises from 10 disciplines, including strength training, HIIT (high-intensity interval training), cycling, yoga, dancing, rowing, and others. Some of the workouts, like rowing and strength training, require you to bring your own equipment. Others, like yoga, need only a mat.

The watch, which connects to your iPhone, iPad, or AppleTV via Bluetooth, transmits biometric data (like heart rate) and workout timers to the screen so you can see them while you’re moving. There’s also a “burn bar” that rates your performance against other people who have done the workout (you can turn this off if that doesn’t motivate you).

…If there’s a secret sauce to Fitness+, it’s the way Blahnik and company designed the service to appeal to a broad swath of users, from fitness buffs to people with no exercise habits.

Unlike other exercise apps which offer different workouts for different experience levels, Fitness+ tries to address every fitness level within its various workouts. To do so, each video includes three different trainers on screen at the same time, and at least one of them—Blahnik calls them “modifiers”—is doing a simpler or less-taxing version of the activity.

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For people who are going slightly stir crazy and need some sort of inspiration, this might actually turn out to be just what they want. If you’ve got an Apple Watch, there’s a free month (counting down to being paid – £10/month or £80/yr). And it’s shareable. Apple had a sort-of go at this a few years ago with its yoga workouts on the Apple TV (and, hence, TV set). That seemed to go quiet, but maybe fed into this. Though it looks like it needs plenty of equipment to use it well.
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Facebook hit with antitrust probe for tying Oculus use to Facebook accounts • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:

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Germany’s Federal Cartel Office (aka, the Bundeskartellamt) said today that it’s instigated abuse proceedings against Facebook to examine the linkage between Oculus VR products and its eponymous social network.

In a statement, its president, Andreas Mundt, said:

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In the future, the use of the new Oculus glasses requires the user to also have a Facebook account. Linking virtual reality products and the group’s social network in this way could constitute a prohibited abuse of dominance by Facebook. With its social network Facebook holds a dominant position in Germany and is also already an important player in the emerging but growing VR (virtual reality) market. We intend to examine whether and to what extent this tying arrangement will affect competition in both areas of activity.

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The FCO has another “abuse of dominance proceeding” ongoing against Facebook — related to how it combines user data for ad profiling in a privacy-hostile way, which the authority contends is an abuse of Facebook’s market dominance.

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Germany getting well ahead of the curve in trying to curb a potential abuse of dominance for a market that’s absolutely tiny. This is essentially what the FTC in the US, and those 48 states suing Facebook, wish they had thought of years ago. But that was a different time.
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What’s the point of Gigabit broadband? • Terence Eden’s Blog

Terence had a problem:

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My yearly contract with my ISP has just come to an end, so it was time to shop around for a better deal. They presented me with the following monthly options:

• Drop to 100Mbps for the same price I’m paying today (£44)
• Keep at 350Mbps for a tenner more (£55)
• Rise to 500Mbps for a fiver more (£49)
• Go to GIGABIT for a lot more (£60)

Mmmmmm GIGABIT…!

Obviously it’s classic anchor pricing. And obviously I fell for it. And obviously I negotiated a £50 bill credit for signing a new contract. But I only went with the half-gig option. Even then, I feel like I’ve bought a sports car and use it to pootle to the village shop and back.

Netflix reckons that 25Mbps is good enough for its 4K service. Even if my wife and I are both watching super-high-def-hdr-surround-sound-smellovision – what do we do with the other 450Mbps?

Once in a while we might download a 60GB video game (!!!). At 350Mbps, that’ll take 22 minutes. At 500Mpbs, 16 minutes. That’s six whole minutes saved (!!!). Going to 1Gbps means the game is downloaded in 8 minutes. But that’s assuming the game company’s CDN can sustain that speed. It probably can’t.

Now we’re in the land on constant video calling, the faster upload that we get is nice. Sadly it’s hard to get symmetric speeds in the UK – so we’re stuck with “only” 40Mbps up. But, again, even with both of us streaming 720p laptop-cam footage, it’s not really taxing the connection.

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As he concedes, “This is a curmudgeonly post which is going to look ridiculously outdated in a few years.” (I’ve done a couple of those about broadband speeds.) I do think though that once you’re past 200Mbps, you struggle to find any benefit, because you’re throttled by the response of distant servers and the routers in the middle. It’s the upload speed that’s more useful now.
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Cydia, the original app store, sues Apple on antitrust grounds • The Washington Post

Reed Albergotti:

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A new lawsuit brought by one of Apple’s oldest foes seeks to force the iPhone maker to allow alternatives to the App Store, the latest in a growing number of cases that aim to curb the tech giant’s power.

The lawsuit was filed on Thursday by the maker of Cydia, a once-popular app store for the iPhone that launched in 2007, before Apple created its own version. The lawsuit alleges that Apple used anti-competitive means to nearly destroy Cydia, clearing the way for the App Store, which Cydia’s attorneys say has a monopoly over software distribution on iOS, Apple’s mobile operating system.

“Were it not for Apple’s anticompetitive acquisition and maintenance of an illegal monopoly over iOS app distribution, users today would actually be able to choose how and where to locate and obtain iOS apps, and developers would be able to use the iOS app distributor of their choice,” the lawsuit alleges. The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Northern California and Cydia is represented by Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan.

Apple is facing an onslaught of lawsuits and scrutiny from lawmakers and regulators around the world for the way it allegedly uses its power to maintain its dominant position over its App Store. Epic Games, the maker of “Fortnite,” sued Apple in August for allegedly monopolistic behavior, and a coalition of software developers taking on Apple’s power has been growing in membership.

…In 2010, [Cydia founder Jay] Freeman told The Washington Post that Cydia had 4.5 million people searching for apps every week.

«

This could be interesting. Freeman’s argument is that it’s your phone, so you should be able to root it just like a computer – or at least jailbreak it. (I suspect Apple’s response would be that you’re free to try, but it doesn’t have to make it easy.)
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Visa and Mastercard will stop processing payments to Pornhub • Vice

Samantha Cole:

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On Thursday, both Visa and Mastercard announced that they would cut ties with Pornhub. Mastercard cited “unlawful content” on the site. 

The decision comes after Visa and Mastercard said on Monday that they would investigate allegations of child sexual abuse imagery on Pornhub, and their relationship to MindGeek, Pornhub’s parent company.   

“Our investigation over the past several days has confirmed violations of our standards prohibiting unlawful content on their site,” Mastercard said in a statement to Bloomberg on Thursday. “We instructed the financial institutions that connect the site to our network to terminate acceptance.”

Following that news, an official Visa account tweeted: “Given the allegations of illegal activity, Visa is suspending Pornhub’s acceptance privileges pending the completion of our ongoing investigation. We are instructing the financial institutions who serve MindGeek to suspend processing of payments through the Visa network.”

“These actions are exceptionally disappointing, as they come just two days after Pornhub instituted the most far-reaching safeguards in user-generated platform history,” Pornhub said in a statement. “Unverified users are now banned from uploading content – a policy no other platform has put in place, including Facebook, which reported 84 million instances of child sexual abuse material over the last three years.

«

Pornhub has a point here. It is covered by Section 230, same as Facebook. Has it really been abusing (um) its privilege for such a long time that Visa and Mastercard got sick of it? You’d think there might have been rumblings that they weren’t happy. Still, quite the week for Nick Kristof.
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Part human, part machine: is Apple turning us all into cyborgs? • The Guardian

Alex Hern with a big read about the coming of smartglasses:

»

“Apple and Facebook are planning to launch consumer smartglasses over the next two years, and will expect to succeed where their predecessors could not,” [Rupantar] Guha [at the analysts GlobalData] adds.

If Apple pulls off that launch, then the cyberpunk – and cyborg – future will have arrived. It’s not hard to imagine the concerns, as cultural questions clash with technological: should kids take off their glasses in the classroom, just as we now require them to keep phones in their lockers? Will we need to carve out lens-free time in our evenings to enjoy old-fashioned, healthy activities such as watching TV or playing video games?

“It’s a fool’s errand to imagine every use of AR before we have the hardware in our hands,” writes the developer Adrian Hon, who was called on by Google to write games for their smartglasses a decade ago. “Yet there’s one use of AR glasses that few are talking about but will be world-changing: scraping data from everything we see.” This “worldscraping” would be a big tech dream – and a privacy activist’s nightmare. A pair of smartglasses turns people into walking CCTV cameras, and the data that a canny company could gather from that is mindboggling.

…“We won’t be able to opt out from wearing AR glasses in 2035 any more than we can opt out of owning smartphones today,” Hon writes. “Billions have no choice but to use them for basic tasks like education, banking, communication and accessing government services. In just a few years time, AR glasses do the same, but faster and better.”

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I still wonder how it’s going to manage for those of us who, sigh, wear reading glasses. How will smartglasses cope with presenting text to eyes that can’t focus on something that close? Can it somehow seem to be projected so it hovers in the air some feet away? These aren’t arcane questions; lots of people have some form of presbyopia or myopia.
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Amazon’s Halo Band wearable tracks your voice and body fat, but isn’t helpful • The Washington Post

Geoffrey Fowler and Heather Kelly:

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Amazon has a new health-tracking bracelet with a microphone and an app that tells you everything that’s wrong with you.

You haven’t exercised or slept enough, reports Amazon’s $65 Halo Band. Your body has too much fat, the Halo’s app shows in a 3-D rendering of your near-naked body.

And even: Your tone of voice is “overbearing” or “irritated,” the Halo determines, after listening through its tiny microphone on your wrist.

And even: Your tone of voice is “overbearing” or “irritated,” the Halo determines, after listening through its tiny microphone on your wrist.

We hope our tone is clear here: We don’t need this kind of criticism from a computer. The Halo collects the most intimate information we’ve seen from a consumer health gadget — and makes the absolute least use of it. This wearable is much better at helping Amazon gather data than at helping you get healthy and happy.

Since August, the Halo has been listed by Amazon as an “early access” product that requires an “invitation” to buy. (It will cost $100 plus a $4 monthly fee once it’s sold widely.) We’re reviewing the Halo now because Amazon’s first digital wellness product offers a glimpse of how one of tech’s most influential companies thinks about the future of health. And what could be better to do when we’re lonely during a pandemic than have an always-listening device point out our flaws? (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, but we review all technology with the same critical eye.)

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TL;DR it’s sexist, inaccurate and very judgey.
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Physicists solve 150-year-old mystery of equation governing sandcastle physics • Ars Technica

Jennifer Ouellette:

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Building sandcastles at the beach is a time-honored tradition around the world, elevated into an art form in recent years thanks to hundreds of annual competitions. While the basic underlying physics is well-known, physicists have continued to gain new insights into this fascinating granular material over the last decade or so. The latest breakthrough comes from Nobel Laureate Andre Geim’s laboratory at the University of Manchester in England, where Geim and his colleagues have solved a mathematical puzzle—the “Kelvin equation”—dating back 150 years, according to a new paper just published in Nature.

All you really need to make a sandcastle is sand and water; the water acts as a kind of glue holding the grains of sand together via capillary forces. Studies have shown that the ideal ratio for building a structurally sound sandcastle is one pail of water for every eight pails of sand, although it’s still possible to build a decent structure with varying water content. But if you want to build the kind of elaborate, towering sandcastles that win competitions, you’d be wise to stick with that ideal ratio.

Back in 2008, physicists decided to delve a little deeper into why sand becomes sticky when it gets wet. Using X-ray microtomography, they took 3D images of wet glass beads of similar shape and size as grains of sand. When they added liquid to dry beads, they observed liquid “capillary bridges” forming between individual beads.

…For this latest work, Geim’s team painstakingly constructed molecular-scale capillaries by layering atom-thin crystals of mica and graphite on top of each other, with narrow strips of graphene in between each layer to serve as spacers. With this method, the team built capillaries of varying height, including capillaries that were just one atom high—just enough to fit one layer of water molecules, the smallest such structure possible.

Geim et al. found that the Kelvin equation is still an excellent qualitative description of capillary condensation at the molecular scale—contradicting expectations, since the properties of water are expected to become more discrete and layered at the 1nm scale.

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Science never sleeps. Vaccines, sandcastles, they’ve got it covered.
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Facebook outage disrupted Messenger and Instagram DMs • The Verge

Jacob Kastrenakes:

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The outage appears to have started around 4:30AM ET and gotten worse (or, at least, more widely noticed) in the following hours. The website Downdetector, which monitors website outages, showed a spike in users reporting issues with these services that peaked around 8:30AM.

Facebook says the disruptions have since been resolved. “Earlier today, some people have experienced trouble sending or receiving messages on Messenger, Instagram or Workplace Chat. The issue has since been resolved and we apologize for any inconvenience,” a Facebook spokesperson wrote in an email to The Verge.

Service outages happen every now and then, but the breadth of this latest disruption is in many ways Facebook’s own doing. The company has been integrating Facebook Messenger and Instagram DMs.

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You see, if Facebook were broken up then this cost – the inconvenience! – wouldn’t be imposed on users. At least that would be an argument that the FTC and 48 states can make now.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1449: Facebook’s creepy ad problem, why gigabit broadband?, Cydia sues Apple over app store, credit cards dump Pornhub, and more

  1. Thank you for reporting the “Facebook profits as users …. ” article.
    In what way is this not a form of digital rape? It is certainly exploitative, mysoginistic and disgusting.

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