Start Up No.1452: Europe goes after on Big Tech, UK unveils Online Harms bill, valuing wireless broadband, Apple Fitness+ reviewed, and more


Figuring out when the next bus will come should be easier through a data-sharing initiative. CC-licensed photo by Chris on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Unvaccinated. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Big fines and strict rules unveiled against ‘big tech’ in Europe • The New York Times

Adam Satariano:

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The European Union proposals introduced in Brussels on Tuesday present the greatest risk to the tech industry, as the 27-nation bloc is home to roughly 450 million people and its regulations often become a model for others in the world. The rules do not single out any company by name, though the targets were clear.

One measure, called the Digital Services Act, proposed large fines for internet platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube if they do not restrict the spread of certain illegal content like hate speech. Along with the similar proposal made earlier in the day in Britain, the debate will be closely watched. Large internet companies have faced years of criticism for not doing more to crack down on user-generated content, but governments have been reluctant to impose laws banning specific material for fear of restricting speech and self-expression.

…In Brussels, leaders also proposed new transparency rules that require companies to disclose more about their services, including why people are targeted with advertisements and other content online. Internet retailers like Amazon could face new requirements to prevent the sale of counterfeit goods.

Another measure aimed at fostering competition would prevent the largest platforms from giving their products better treatment over rivals, potentially affecting how Google displays search results or what products Amazon promotes.

Regulators would have a path for breaking up companies that repeatedly violate E.U. antitrust laws.

Margrethe Vestager, the European Commission executive vice president who oversees digital policy and antitrust enforcement, said the global tech policy debate is a “different world” compared to five years ago when she was criticized for taking action against Google and other American firms.

Now, she said, there is broad agreement that “with size comes responsibility.”

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Europe has been a long way ahead of the US (and UK, in effect) in its treatment of big tech. Not that the UK has been slumming it…
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Online harms bill: firms may face multibillion-pound fines for illegal content • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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Social media companies will need to remove and limit the spread of harmful content or face fines of billions of pounds, the UK government has announced, as it finally reveals the details of its proposed internet regulation.

The online harms bill, first proposed by Theresa May’s government in April 2019, sets out strict new guidelines governing removal of illegal content such as child sexual abuse, terrorist material and media that promotes suicide, which sites must obey or face being blocked in the UK.

It also requires platforms to abide by a new code of conduct that sets out their responsibilities towards children. The bill requires the most popular sites to set their own terms and conditions, and face fines if they fail to stick to them.

For the first time, online misinformation will come under the remit of a government regulator, in cases when content is legal but could cause significant physical or psychological harm to adults.

Ofcom, which has been confirmed as the regulator by the bill, will have the power to levy unprecedented fines of up to £18m or 10% of global turnover. That would leave a company such as Facebook potentially paying a £5bn fine for serious breaches. By contrast, GDPR laws cap fines at €20m (£18m) or 4% of global turnover. Ofcom will also have the power to block services from the UK entirely.

The government has backed down on one suggestion, made in the initial consultation, to bring criminal sanctions against individual executives. The legislation includes provisions for such penalties, but that power will need to be separately introduced by parliament via secondary legislation. The government says it plans to introduce that legislation only if companies fail to take the new rules seriously.

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Here’s the Online Harms White Paper response, if you’re feeling strong. This has been brewing for a long, long time inside government (I think I was interviewed for part of it myself back in 2016 by some of the Home Office’s people). Meanwhile, tech companies have rushed on. But as Benedict Evans points out, what the EU’s moves and this show is that tech is now becoming a regulated industry. There are limits being put on what it can do. Know what else is regulated? Pollution.
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Twitter to shut down streaming app Periscope by March • Reuters

Reuters Staff:

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Twitter Inc on Tuesday said it would shut down live-streaming app Periscope, which it bought in 2015, due to declining usage over the past couple of years and high supporting costs.

The mobile app has been in “an unsustainable maintenance-mode state” for a while, Twitter said in a blog post here.

Most of Periscope’s core capabilities have been integrated into Twitter and the company plans to remove it from app stores by March 2021.

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People are still using Periscope? I thought its death had been announced years ago. TikTok has swept all before it with its pure algorithmic approach.
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RDOF auction results already raising questions • Light Reading

Mike Dano:

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The ink is just beginning to dry on the FCC’s initial $9.2bn Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction, but some in the telecom industry are already raising questions about the entities receiving funds, what they plan to spend it on, and whether they might be able to effectively cross the digital divide.

“Confusion and corruption may just be beginning,” wrote Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), on the group’s MuniNetworks website. Mitchell raised a number of questions about how some of the auction’s biggest winners might effectively deploy a range of telecom technologies in rural areas.

And Mitchell isn’t the only one signalling concerns.

“Not feeling quite as bullish about this final outcome for RDOF,” tweeted Shirley Bloomfield, the CEO of the NTCA rural trade association.

“We started poking around the FCC’s maps of winning RDOF bids, and there’s enough smoke to suggest a fire,” wrote S. Derek Turner, a research director at public-interest group Free Press, in a lengthy post to the association’s website. Turner pointed to a number of locations receiving RDOF funds that may not be considered rural areas needing connectivity.

Indeed, some financial analysts even raised questions about the logistics governing the FCC’s RDOF auction. “We have heard rumblings from bidders that there is significant unhappiness with the auction,” wrote the financial analysts at New Street Research in a note to investors issued just prior to the agency’s release of the auction’s winning bidders. “We are not sure of the causes … but we have heard suggestions of software errors, predictions of significant defaults caused by winners being stuck in places they don’t really have an interest in, and results where the actual subsidy is minimal so that the aggregate amount the FCC will use could end up being significantly lower than the allotted $16bn.”

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The most interesting thing in this is the table from a company offering both fixed fibre and wireless, which shows that it’s significantly cheaper to connect customers wirelessly, and their net present value (NPV) – what they’re effectively worth to the company – is also higher for wireless.
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Revealed: China suspected of spying on Americans via Caribbean phone networks • The Guardian

Stephanie Kirchgaessner:

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China appears to have used mobile phone networks in the Caribbean to surveil US mobile phone subscribers as part of its espionage campaign against Americans, according to a mobile network security expert who has analysed sensitive signals data.

The findings paint an alarming picture of how China has allegedly exploited decades-old vulnerabilities in the global telecommunications network to route “active” surveillance attacks through telecoms operators.

The alleged attacks appear to be enabling China to target, track, and intercept phone communications of US phone subscribers, according to research and analysis by Gary Miller, a Washington state-based former mobile network security executive.

Miller, who has spent years analysing mobile threat intelligence reports and observations of signalling traffic between foreign and US mobile operators, said in some cases China appeared to have used networks in the Caribbean to conduct its surveillance.

At the heart of the allegations are claims that China, using a state-controlled mobile phone operator, is directing signalling messages to US subscribers, usually while they are travelling abroad.

Signalling messages are commands that are sent by a telecoms operators across the global network, unbeknownst to a mobile phone user. They allow operators to locate mobile phones, connect mobile phone users to one another, and assess roaming charges. But some signalling messages can be used for illegitimate purposes, such as tracking, monitoring, or intercepting communications.

US mobile phone operators can successfully block many such attempts, but Miller believes the US has not gone far enough to protect mobile phone users, who he believes are not aware of how insecure their communications are.

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The mobile network really is very insecure. That reality has only become clear in the past few years as its openness becomes clear.
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My million dollar domain hobby: setting the stage • Medium

Adam Doppelt:

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I like to keep my hobbies cheap and cheerful — no database, no queue, no complexity. Just a CSV file, ssh whois, and my old friend sleep() to honor the rate limits. The results were cached in a Dropbox folder with one file per request. My precious data lives in a single Google Sheet, though I export periodically to feed my scripts.

Both crawls completed in a few hours and I was shocked to find that some wonderful domains were unregistered! Why hadn’t anyone registered Thump.io or Bullseye.ai? With shaking hands I quickly created an account at Namecheap and registered 50 domains that looked promising. It cost a few thousand dollars.

Now I had a new problem. How could I tell which of the remaining 44k domains were valuable? How could I separate the wheat from the chaff? My instincts were passable but I yearned for data. Luckily I had a bright idea.

Google rolled out the .app TLD in mid-2018. Rather than releasing all the domains into the wild on day one, they released the names in stages. It went something like this. On the first day, a .app domain could be registered for $10k. On the second day, a .app domain could be registered for $5k. On the third day, the price dropped to $2.5k. This would continue for ten days.

Here was my bright idea — a whois crawl of .app would reveal which domains were registered each of those ten days. Clearly, the domains registered on day one were more likely to be valuable than the domains registered on day two. I already had a whois crawler ready to go, so it was trivial to gather the data for .app. Now I had a reasonable way to value prospective .ai and .io domains from my list of 44k. I called my metric gscore and it became another column in my spreadsheet.

Now it was time to buy some domains.

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Originally I was going to say that a hobby that costs a few thousand dollars is more than a hobby, but that’s really not true, is it? After a house and a car (or possibly before), that’s likely to be your biggest discretionary expenditure. Though possibly not to a portfolio of a million dollars.
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TfN unveils bus data development service • UKAuthority

Mark Say:

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Transport for the North (TfN) has developed a service to enable bus operators to publish fares in a standardised data format.

Named the Create Fares Data Service, it will initially be available for bus services in the TfN region but is to be handed to the DfT to develop as a national service.

It is intended to enable the operators to publish fares online and in journey planning apps, to help app developers use the data in other services.

The tool has been developed in partnership with the Department for Transport (DfT) and Traveline – a partnership of transport companies, local authorities and passenger groups – as part of TfN’s Integrated and Smart Travel programme.

Digital transformation consultancy Infinity Works has also been involved in the development, with bus operators contributing to the design and testing.

The new service uses the NeTEx format – an XML schema for public transport data – which has not been widely used in the UK. TfN said this would give developers further scope to innovate and ultimately provide passengers with better access to information.

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So here’s a story. Back in 2006, Michael Cross and I started a campaign at the Guardian called Free Our Data, about getting the UK government to make the nonpersonal data that it held (such as map data, business data, river level data, tide data and so on) available for free reuse by companies, on the basis that this would encourage data-reliant businesses to thrive. In 2010, both the Labour and Tory parties had such moves in their manifestos.

But the thing that didn’t come through? Bus data. So much competition, so much distrust, and so little leverage from government: I recall being in a meeting with Francis Maude, then the Cabinet Office minister, where there was vague hope of getting bus data to be public. That was 2011 or so.

Now it seems like something might actually happen, so that we can get some real interaction and information about bus services.
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Pinterest settles gender discrimination suit for $22.5m • The New York Times

Erin Griffith:

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Pinterest on Monday agreed to pay $22.5m to settle a gender discrimination and retaliation lawsuit from Françoise Brougher, its former chief operating officer, in one of the largest publicly announced individual settlements for gender discrimination.

As part of the agreement, Pinterest did not admit to any liability.

…Pinterest, a virtual pinboard company, has been under scrutiny for months about how it handles its employees. In June, two employees who had recently quit, Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks, publicly discussed their experiences with racist and sexist comments, pay inequities and retaliation at the company. Further reports of cultural issues at Pinterest added fuel to their accounts.

In August, Ms. Brougher sued Pinterest for sexist treatment in San Francisco Superior Court. She joined the company in 2018 as chief operating officer and was responsible for the company’s revenue, with roughly half of the 2,000 employees reporting to her.

But even though she was a top executive, Ms. Brougher said, she had been left out of important meetings, was given gendered feedback and was paid less than her male peers. She said she was let go in April after she spoke up about the treatment.

Alongside her lawsuit, she published a blog post titled “The Pinterest Paradox: Cupcakes and Toxicity,” outlining her experience. She said the post prompted an outpouring of support and similar stories from other female tech executives.

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That is a big settlement which will attract a lot of notice in Silicon Valley.
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Dear Google: we agree search competition should be “only 1 click away” – so why is it 15+ on Android? • Spread Privacy (DuckDuckGo)

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Dear Google, one of the most repeated lines you’ve used to fend off antitrust inquiries is to say search competition is “only one click away.” The recent House Antitrust Subcommittee report notes that “in an internal presentation about [Microsoft] Internet Explorer’s default search selection, Google recommended that users be given an initial opportunity to select a search engine and that browsers minimize the steps required to change the default search provider.” Finally, something we can agree on!

So, Google, given that you’ve often said competition is one click away, and you’re aware a complicated process suppresses competition, why does it take fifteen+ clicks to make DuckDuckGo Search or any other alternative the default on Android devices? Google search is made the default on Android devices in two ways, through the home screen search bar and default browser. Here is how someone can change both:

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…It’s quite involved. I haven’t got an iOS device to hand, but I don’t think it’s quite as complicated – though you can’t make DuckDuckGo the search engine that Siri uses.
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About iOS 12 Updates • Apple Support

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iOS 12.5 lets you opt-in to the COVID-19 Exposure Notifications system for your iPhone. System availability depends on support from your local public health authority. For more information see covid19.apple.com/contacttracing

This release also provides security updates and is recommended for all users.

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Apple 12.5 runs on devices as far back as the iPhone 5S. Which was released in 2013. Your move, Google.
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I hate working out, but Apple Fitness+ got me hooked • Input Magazine

Raymond Wong:

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I was not expecting much from Fitness+, Apple’s new fitness subscription service ($9.99/month, $79.99/year, or bundled with Apple One Premier for $29.95/month) that pairs an Apple Watch with video workouts delivered on an iOS device or Apple TV. “Great, Apple is trying to reinvent the Jane Fonda workout tapes my mom used to watch in front of the CRT,” is what I thought at first.

Many Apple Fitness+ workouts later, I am hooked. It’s not just that Apple’s hired a bunch of attractive and fit trainers draped in immaculate Nike activewear to coach you through various workouts (there’s no shortage of those on YouTube), but that the fitness routines and the coaching are actually fun.

Fitness+’s integration with data measured by the Apple Watch is clever and adds value to the smartwatch. Yeah, Fitness+ is sort of a modern take on the jazzercise of the ‘80s, but the workouts are more engaging and very well produced, which only makes them more addictive. I don’t think it all “clicked” until I took a dance “class” with one of the trainers, Ben Allen, that Fitness+ became fun. “It doesn’t have to be pretty. You just need to be having a good time!” he said as he busted a move and encouraged a flailing me to keep going.

Something about that hit differently. I stopped thinking of fitness as something to keep me sane, but as an enjoyable distraction from the bleakness of the world right now. Alright Apple, you got me. Take my money. It’s yours.

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A number of people are comparing this to Peloton, but that’s the wrong comparison. It’s not trying to take time from Peloton; those are already dedicated users. It’s trying to take time from what Horace Dediu calls “non-consumption” – people who, for whatever reason, would like to try some workouts but haven’t had a good reason or way to.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: Jim Morrison points out that Pornhub deleting its non-verified user content pales when compared to Google effectively making everything on Drive, Mail and other services vanish for half an hour on Monday. He has a point. And you should try his “let’s fix news” product OneSub.

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