Start Up No.1474: Tim Cook knocks Facebook, Oversight Board rules (badly) on Myanmar, Guardian’s regex style guide, and more


There are plenty of legal call centres in India, such as this one – but also others dedicated to scamming people. CC-licensed photo by International Labour Organization ILO on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. See? Another one done. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Who’s making all those scam calls? • The New York Times

Yudhijit Bhattacharjee:

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I flew to India at the end of 2019 hoping to visit some of the call centers that L. had identified as homes for scams. Although he had detected many tech-support scams originating from Delhi, Hyderabad and other Indian cities, L. was convinced that Kolkata — based on the volume of activity he was noticing there — had emerged as a capital of such frauds. I knew the city well, having covered the crime beat there for an English-language daily in the mid-1990s, and so I figured that my chances of tracking down scammers would be better there than most other places in India.

I took with me, in my notebook, a couple of addresses that L. identified in the days just before my trip as possible origins for some scam calls. Because the geolocation of I.P. addresses — ascertaining the geographical coordinates associated with an internet connection — isn’t an exact science, I wasn’t certain that they would yield any scammers.

But I did have the identity of a person linked to one of these spots, a young man whose first name is Shahbaz. L. identified him by matching webcam images and several government-issued IDs found on his computer. The home address on his ID matched what L. determined, from the I.P. address, to be the site of the call center where he operated, which suggested that the call center was located where he lived or close by. That made me optimistic I would find him there. In a recording of a call Shahbaz made in November, weeks before my Kolkata visit, I heard him trying to hustle a woman in Ottawa and successfully intimidating and then fleecing an elderly man in the United States.

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I first wrote about this scam system more than 10 years ago. It was obvious then that it was a multi-million pound scam; this NYT article shows that it’s still going strong, and more organised than ever.
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Tim Cook condemns Facebook business model, says valuing engagement over privacy leads to ‘polarization’ and ‘violence’ • 9to5Mac

Michael Potuck:

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Tim Cook touched on a variety of concerning issues Apple sees when it comes to privacy and security across the technology industry. He reiterated the point that in many cases, people aren’t customers anymore but rather the product that businesses are selling to advertisers: “As I’ve said before, if we accept as normal and unavoidable that everything in our lives can be aggregated and sold, we lose so much more than data, we lose the freedom to be human. And yet, this is a hopeful new season, a time of thoughtfulness and reform.”

Cook praised GDPR for being the most concrete progress in consumer privacy and security and said it’s time for the US and the rest of the world to pass similar legislation: “Together, we must send a universal, humanistic response to those who claim a right to users’ private information about what should not and will not be tolerated.”

Cook made the point that advertising thrived for decades without invading personal privacy. And detailed Apple’s recent privacy features like privacy nutrition labels and the upcoming iOS 14 ad tracking transparency feature.

While Cook didn’t call out Facebook by name, he condemned its business model that any engagement is good engagement and capturing as much user data as possible.

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Apple and Facebook are the Cold War of tech.
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Yael Eisenstat on Facebook and “free speech” • Galley By CJR

Eisenstat was formerly a CIA officer, and worked for a few months at Facebook: she had thought she was being hired to oversee political advertising, but instead found herself shunted into a non-job. So she complained, and then resigned. Here she’s in conversation with Mathew Ingram:

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The problem is, in part, that Facebook let Trump violate their policies and stoke division and distrust for so long, that now we’re asking this huge question about whether they were right to de-platform him, as opposed to why did they allow him to violate their policies for so long? Had they held him to the same standard as the rest of us, we might not have ever made it to this dramatic moment where they had to de-platform him.

Let’s remember this: Facebook has policies that they apply to the rest of us, and we are put in “Facebook jail” or kicked off if we violate them. They have selectively held certain politicians and elite voices to a different standard. So if the question is simply about whether Trump violated Facebook’s policies and should be judged strictly on that… then yes, I think they did the right thing. But if we are looking at it in the larger context of what it will mean for global speech and norms, and who holds the power over how speech is treated, then it is much more complicated. Unfortunately, there’s no hot take on this. It’s not a simple “yes” or “no”.

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She’s very smart on the topic.
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Facebook to downplay politics on its platform • Axios

Sara Fischer:

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday said the company will dial back on pushing political groups and content to users.

Facebook is hoping to dim intense political pressure from conservatives and liberals by backing away from arguments it’s long made that political speech is vital to free expression.

On a call to investors, Zuckerberg said that the company will stop providing recommendations for users to join civic and political groups on a long-term basis.

The company had done so temporarily leading up to the US election last year. Zuckerberg said Facebook plans to extend this policy globally as well.

Facebook also plans to take steps to reduce the amount of political content in the News Feed, although Zuckerberg didn’t provide any details about how it plans to do so.

He said users don’t want politics and fighting to take over their experience on the app.

“There has been a trend across society that a lot of things have become politicized and politics have had a way of creeping into everything,” Zuckerberg said. “A lot of the feedback we see from our community is that people don’t want that in their experience.”

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Really. Only four or five years too late. And after all the insistence that hardly anyone saw politics.
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Case Decision 2020-002-FB-UA • Facebook Oversight Board

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On October 29, 2020, a user in Myanmar posted in a Facebook group in Burmese. The post included two widely shared photographs of a Syrian toddler of Kurdish ethnicity who drowned attempting to reach Europe in September 2015.

The accompanying text stated that there is something wrong with Muslims (or Muslim men) psychologically or with their mindset. It questioned the lack of response by Muslims generally to the treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China, compared to killings in response to cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad in France. The post concludes that recent events in France reduce the user’s sympathies for the depicted child, and seems to imply the child may have grown up to be an extremist.

Facebook removed this content under its Hate Speech Community Standard.

Key findings
Facebook removed this content as it contained the phrase “[there is] something wrong with Muslims psychologically.” As its Hate Speech Community Standard prohibits generalized statements of inferiority about the mental deficiencies of a group on the basis of their religion, the company removed the post.

The Board considered that while the first part of the post, taken on its own, might appear to make an insulting generalization about Muslims (or Muslim men), the post should be read as a whole, considering context.

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This is an astonishingly bad decision. In my forthcoming book, an entire chapter looks at Facebook’s effect on Myanmar, where the (majority) Buddhists often discriminate against the (tiny minority) Muslims. Facebook posts which dehumanise or demean Muslims raise the social temperature in the country, where there was a genocide which Facebook was partly blamed for in 2017. Anything that ignores that context and allows demeaning posts risks making things worse.

If this is going to be typical of the Oversight Board’s decisions, best to dissolve it now.
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How we made Typerighter, the Guardian’s style guide checker • The Guardian

Jonathon Herbert:

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The Guardian’s style guide was originally published in 1928 as a physical book, and is available to everyone on our website. Over time, it’s grown bigger and more complex, containing guidelines on important topics that we want to get right. Last year, for example, we updated it to more accurately describe the environmental crisis facing the world. In short, our style guide is ever-expanding, and it changes to reflect our times and values. How do journalists writing and editing content keep up to date?

I’m a software engineer on the Guardian’s Editorial Tools team. Two years ago, the team were introduced to Max Walker, who had been working on an answer to that question. As a subeditor on the Features desk, Max had begun writing regular expressions – short sequences of characters to search for patterns in text (regex) – to help spot copy that didn’t match parts of the style guide. He’d begun work on them about a year before, and had written a script to apply them to copy as it appeared on our website.

Led across the office by our product manager David Blishen, we peered over Max’s shoulder at the litany of corrections his regexes had picked up. There were lots. Somebody asked Max how many rules he’d written. “Oh”, he said. “About 13,000.”

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This is a terrific story, and so familiar to anyone who’s tried to introduce some sort of technology into a newsroom – including the period in the middle when they develop the tool, and nobody uses it. But they ended up with a system that applies the Guardian’s style guide to copy in the in-browser system used for content management.
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Has science solved the Dyatlov Pass incident, one of history’s greatest adventure mysteries? • National Geographic

Robin George Andrews:

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In what has become known as the Dyatlov Pass incident, ten members of the Urals Polytechnic Institute in Yekaterinburg—nine students and one sports instructor who fought in World War II—headed into the frigid wilderness on a skiing and mountaineering expedition on January 23, 1959.

One student with joint pain turned back, but the rest, led by 23-year-old engineering student Igor Dyatlov, continued on. According to camera film and personal diaries later found on the scene by investigators, the team made camp on February 1, pitching a large tent on the snowy slopes of Kholat Saykhl, whose name can be interpreted as “Dead Mountain” in the language of the region’s Indigenous Mansi people.

When a search team arrived at Kholat Saykhl a few weeks later, the expedition tent was found just barely sticking out of the snow, and it appeared cut open from the inside. The next day, the first of the bodies was found near a cedar tree. Over the next few months, as the snow thawed, search teams gradually uncovered more spine-chilling sights: All nine of the team members’ bodies were scattered around the mountain’s slope, some in a baffling state of undress; some of their skulls and chests had been smashed open; others had eyes missing, and one lacked a tongue.

Each body was a piece in a grim puzzle, but none of the pieces seemed to fit together. A criminal investigation at the time blamed their deaths on an “unknown natural force,” and the Soviet bureaucracy kept the case quiet. The lack of detail about this shocking event, an apparent massacre that transpired in a deeply secretive state, gave rise to dozens of long-lived conspiracy theories, from clandestine military tests to Yeti attacks.

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Normally a headline ending with a questionmark is answered “no”, but in this case it’s pretty certainly “yes”. The solution involves crash test dummies and Pixar.
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Game. Stop. • Margins by Ranjan Roy and Can Duruk

Ranjan Roy:

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A year ago I wrote about how ZIRP, or cheap capital, had completely distorted financial markets at all levels. Last summer, I wrote about how Robinhood sells order flow to giants like Citadel and its traders are “the gravy”. I theorized how people sitting at home, spending more time on social media, was adding a new level of distortion into financial markets. I argued George Soros’s reflexivity theory was being realized in so many weird and new ways because of social platform dynamics. I freaking described in detail how a Gamma Squeeze works.

A month ago, I wrote how the only way I could describe my feeling towards these markets was one of exasperated exuberance. And just last week I wrote about how cheap capital via zero interest rates combined with social platform dynamics have created a completely distorted market economy that rewards grifting above all else.

I promise you this is not some weak attempt to get you to read my older pieces. I’m trying to convey how the events of the past two days are so ridiculously in my headspace that my head feels like it’s about to explode. A lot of people have been messaging me to try to help explain what’s going on. Given everything I listed above, I wish I could provide everyone with a simple explanation.

All I can say to anyone who’s simply market-curious and wants to try to understand what’s going on. Don’t.

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Roy is a former trader (he got out because he thought it was so unfair to the small investor – honest). His writeups are the best things around for understanding all this madness. (Also The Margins is free! Subscribe!)
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Robinhood blocks purchase of GameStop, AMC, and BlackBerry stock • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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Robinhood has added new limits to its app to restrict users from buying or trading any of the popular Reddit r/WallStreetBets stocks, including GameStop ($GME), AMC ($AMC), BlackBerry ($BB), Bed Bath & Beyond ($BBBY), Nokia ($NOK), and more. Users will still be allowed to close out existing positions but won’t be able to buy more of the stocks. The company is citing “recent volatility” in the market as the reasoning behind the change.

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We continuously monitor the markets and make changes where necessary. In light of recent volatility, we are restricting transactions for certain securities to position closing only, including $AMC, $BB, $BBBY, $EXPR, $GME, $KOSS, $NAKD and $NOK. We also raised margin requirements for certain securities.

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But hedge funds could, though other “traditional brokers” who deal with individual investors also mysterious put a stop on buying because of “unprecedented” trading activity. Guess the stock market knows the internet has arrived. And that’s led to American politicians calling a hearing about what’s going on.

Not too clever to call your app Robinhood and then turn tail as soon as it starts living up to its namesake.
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Robinhood hit with class action suit after trying to shut down WallStreetBets’ GameStop uprising • Daily Beast

Arya Hodjat:

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The financial trading app Robinhood is been hit with a federal class action lawsuit after it restricted trades to stocks popular on the Reddit forum r/WallStreetBets, sending Redditors and app users into a meltdown.

The lawsuit, filed in the Southern District of New York on Thursday, alleges that the app “purposefully, willfully, and knowingly removing the stock ‘GME’ from its trading platform in the midst of an unprecedented stock rise, thereby deprived [sic] retail investors of the ability to invest in the open-market and manipulating the open-market.”

Robinhood, which describes itself as “democratizing finance for all” allows users to buy and sell stock, without a commission fee. A Robinhood spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit on Thursday, instead pointing to a Thursday blog post on its website.

“We continuously monitor the markets and make changes where necessary. In light of recent volatility,” the statement read. “We are restricting transactions for certain securities to position closing only.”

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They’re all really going to want to go over the fine print over the end-user licence agreement. I bet there’s a bit of squeaky bum time among the Robinhood lawyers.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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