Start Up No.1502: Russia’s vaccine disinformation campaign, Biden gets antitrustful, Huawei slashes smartphone orders, empty Olympics?, and more


The US saw fewer traffic jams in 2020 – but road deaths jumped. Why? CC-licensed photo by Florian on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not a member of the Society of Editors. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Russian disinformation campaign aims to undermine confidence in Pfizer, other Covid-19 vaccines, US officials say • WSJ

Michael R. Gordon and Dustin Volz:

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Russian intelligence agencies have mounted a campaign to undermine confidence in Pfizer’s and other western vaccines, using online publications that in recent months have questioned the vaccines’ development and safety, US officials said.

An official with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, which monitors foreign disinformation efforts, identified four publications that he said have served as fronts for Russian intelligence. The websites played up the vaccines’ risk of side effects, questioned their efficacy, and said the US had rushed the Pfizer vaccine through the approval process, among other false or misleading claims.

Though the outlets’ readership is small, US officials say they inject false narratives that can be amplified by other Russian and international media.

“We can say these outlets are directly linked to Russian intelligence services,” the Global Engagement Center official said of the sites behind the disinformation campaign. “They’re all foreign-owned, based outside of the United States. They vary a lot in their reach, their tone, their audience, but they’re all part of the Russian propaganda and disinformation ecosystem.”

In addition, Russian state media and Russian government Twitter accounts have made overt efforts to raise concerns about the cost and safety of the Pfizer vaccine in what experts outside the US government say is an effort to promote the sale of Russia’s rival Sputnik V vaccine.

…The foreign efforts to sow doubts about the vaccine exploit deep-seated anxieties about the efficacy and side effects of vaccines that were already prevalent in some communities in the U.S. and internationally.

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Just as in the 2016 US presidential election, and the Brexit vote: there’s no need to create division; just amplify what’s there already. The number of people who, on seeing official suggestions backed up by data, insist that the opposite must be true, is amazing, particularly around vaccination. A common theme is “look how many people have died soon after being vaccinated!” Which rather ignores the age of the first cohort to receive it. (Plus the same people are always insisting that the flu is much more deadly than it really is. They can’t seem to decide which narrative to go with. So they use both.)
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Huawei to more than halve smartphone output in 2021 • Nikkei Asia

Naoki Watanabe and Hideaki Ryugen:

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Huawei has notified suppliers that it plans to order enough components for 70m to 80m smartphones this year, according to people at multiple suppliers. The range represents more than a 60% decline from the 189m smartphones Huawei shipped last year.

The company’s component orders have been limited to those for 4G models as it lacks US government permission to import components for 5G models. Some of the suppliers indicated the figure could be lowered to nearly 50m units.

The embattled Chinese tech giant last year fell to No. 3 in the global smartphone industry, behind Samsung Electronics and Apple, according to research company IDC. Huawei is likely to lose further ground this year amid the US export restrictions.

Huawei declined to answer Nikkei inquiries regarding the matter.

Huawei in November sold its Honor budget brand to a consortium of more than 30 Chinese companies in a bid to help Honor regain access to critical components and parts subject to the U.S. restrictions.

Honor says it has resecured business relationships with key suppliers, including AMD, Intel, MediaTek, Micron Technology, Microsoft, Qualcomm, Samsung, SK Hynix and Sony. It launched the V40 5G smartphone in China last month.

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Brutal. And Biden seems to be in no hurry to restore the status quo ante. Equally, China’s government doesn’t, as far as we can tell, seem to be in much hurry to push for it. A reminder that Huawei’s CFO remains on bail in Canada, charged with evading sanctions, while two Canadians are in Chinese jail, apparently as retaliation.
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How to put out democracy’s dumpster fire • The Atlantic

Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev:

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Perhaps the most apt historical model for algorithmic regulation is not trust-busting, but environmental protection. To improve the ecology around a river, it isn’t enough to simply regulate companies’ pollution. Nor will it help to just break up the polluting companies. You need to think about how the river is used by citizens—what sort of residential buildings are constructed along the banks, what is transported up and down the river—and the fish that swim in the water. Fishermen, yachtsmen, ecologists, property developers, and area residents all need a say. Apply that metaphor to the online world: Politicians, citizen-scientists, activists, and ordinary people will all have to work together to co-govern a technology whose impact is dependent on everyone’s behavior, and that will be as integral to our lives and our economies as rivers once were to the emergence of early civilizations.

The internet is not the first promising technology to have quickly turned dystopian. In the early 20th century, radio was greeted with as much enthusiasm as the internet was in the early 21st. Radio will “fuse together all mankind” wrote Velimir Khlebnikov, a Russian futurist poet, in the 1920s. Radio would connect people, end war, promote peace!

Almost immediately, a generation of authoritarians learned how to use radio for hate propaganda and social control. In the Soviet Union, radio speakers in apartments and on street corners blared Communist agitprop. The Nazis introduced the Volksempfänger, a cheap wireless transistor set, to broadcast Hitler’s speeches; in the 1930s, Germany had more radios per capita than anywhere else in the world. In America, the new information sphere was taken over not by the state but by private media companies chasing ratings—and one of the best ways to get ratings was to promote hatred. Every week, more than 30 million would tune in to the pro-Hitler, anti-Semitic radio broadcasts of Father Charles Coughlin, the Detroit priest who eventually turned against American democracy itself.

In Britain, John Reith, the visionary son of a Scottish clergyman, began to look for an alternative: radio that was controlled neither by the state, as it was in dictatorships, nor by polarizing, profit-seeking companies. Reith’s idea was public radio, funded by taxpayers but independent of the government. It would not only “inform, educate and entertain”; it would facilitate democracy by bringing society together…

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The question is, what’s the social media equivalent of the BBC? It’s not Wikipedia, though that is a sort of publicly coordinated page.
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Scoop: Biden taps another Big Tech trustbuster • POLITICO

Ryan Lizza, Tara Palmeri, Eugene Daniels and Rachael Bade:

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President Joe Biden has decided to nominate Lina Khan, a Columbia University legal scholar championed by anti-Big Tech activists, to the Federal Trade Commission.

Along with the recent hiring of Tim Wu as an economic adviser inside the White House — also first reported in Playbook — the addition of Khan signals that Biden is poised to pursue an aggressive regulatory agenda when it comes to Amazon, Google, Facebook and other tech giants.

An FBI agent this week was making calls to Khan’s associates for her background check, the final part of the vetting process before a major administration job is officially announced. Sources confirmed Khan is headed to the FTC if she survives Senate confirmation.

The addition of Khan and Wu represents a massive shift in philosophy away from the era of Barack Obama, who proudly forged an alliance between the Democratic Party and Big Tech.

At the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, a top Obama adviser marveled that Google’s Eric Schmidt, then the company’s CEO, had worked so closely with the Obama campaign on its tech infrastructure that the work and advice should have been considered a massive in-kind donation. In office the Obama White House and Silicon Valley had a symbiotic relationship.

The ascendance of Khan and Wu, two of the most important intellectuals in the recent progressive antitrust revival, signals a break with that past and hints that Biden is sympathetic to the left’s view that Obama’s laissez-faire policies helped engender the populist backlash that ended with Donald Trump’s election.

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Khan is the author of “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox“, written when she was a law student, about how Amazon’s predatory pricing might violate antitrust law – or, if it didn’t, the law needed to be changed. Khan was one of the people behind the tough questions coming from Democrats when Apple, Amazon and Google were in front of Congress late last year.

As the story says, having both Khan and Wu inside the administration is quite a signal. Though I really don’t think that laissez-faire policies around tech had anything to do with Trump getting in.
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Japan to keep foreign spectators away from Tokyo Olympics, Kyodo says • US News

David Dolan and Chris Gallagher:

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Japan has decided to stage this summer’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics without overseas spectators due to public concern about COVID-19, Kyodo news agency said on Tuesday, citing officials with knowledge of the matter.

The Tokyo 2020 games organising committee said in response that a decision would be made by the end of March.

The Olympics, postponed by a year because of the pandemic, are scheduled for July 23 to Aug. 8 and the Paralympics from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.

Kyodo said the government had concluded that welcoming fans from abroad would not be possible given public concern about the coronavirus and the detection of more contagious variants in many countries, Kyodo cited the officials as saying.

The opening ceremony of the torch relay would also be held without any spectators, Kyodo said.

“The organising committee has decided it is essential to hold the ceremony in the northeastern prefecture of Fukushima behind closed doors, only permitting participants and invitees to take part in the event, to avoid large crowds forming amid the pandemic,” Kyodo said, quoting the officials.

Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto has said she wants a decision on whether to let in overseas spectators before the start of the torch relay on March 25.

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It’s going to be very weird. So many questions. Will some of the countries boycott it? Will some of the athletes be excluded for failing Covid tests? What sort of tests will they be? Will immunised athletes be exempt from tests? Will only immunised athletes be allowed? How is this thing going to work, just at the competitor level? And that’s before you get to the officials, of whom there have to be loads.
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Traffic congestion dropped by 73% in 2020 due to the pandemic • Ars Technica

Jonathan Gitlin:

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In 2020, the average US driver spent 26 hours stuck in traffic. While that’s still more than a day, it’s a steep decline from pre-pandemic times; in 2019 the average American sacrificed 99 hours to traffic jams. Around the world, it’s a similar story. German drivers averaged an identical 26 hours of traffic in 2020, down from 46 the year before. In the UK, 2019 sounded positively awful, with 115 hours in traffic jams. At least one thing improved for that island nation in 2020: its drivers only spent 37 hours stationary in their cars.

This data was all collected by traffic analytics company Inrix for its 2020 Global Traffic Scorecard that tracks mobility across more than 1,000 different cities around the world based on travel times, miles traveled, trip characteristics, and the effect of crashes on congestion in each city.

And unless you’ve spent the past 12 months in a cave—in which case, gee, do I have some crappy news for you—you’ll instinctively know that there were big declines in traffic in 2020, and in particular a drop in people traveling to downtowns and central business districts.

Still, traffic didn’t actually disappear completely, and averages hide a lot in a country as large as the United States. The worst traffic of 2020 was experienced in New York City, up from 4th worst in 2019, where drivers lost 100 hours to traffic jams. But New Yorkers still spent 28% less time stuck in traffic, traveled 28% fewer miles, and experienced 38% fewer crashes than in 2019.

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Yet, weirdly, US road deaths seem to have increased by about 8%, the biggest increase in 13 years. Why? The suspicion is that people saw open roads and drove more recklessly.

In the UK, by contrast, road deaths seem to have fallen, at least to the first half of 2020, by about 14%.
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Self-flying drones are helping speed deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines in Ghana • The Verge

James Vincent:

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This month, COVID-19 vaccines were delivered by drone for the first time in the West African nation, allowing the medicine to reach remote areas underserved by traditional logistics.

Deliveries were made by US firm Zipline, which started couriering blood and drugs in Rwanda in 2016. Since then, the company has expanded its operations to Ghana in 2019 and the US in 2020, delivering medical supplies and PPE in North Carolina last May. Now, Ghana’s government has tapped Zipline to deliver the first vaccines supplied to Africa by the COVAX initiative, a project launched with the help of the World Health Organization (WHO) to ensure that developing countries have access to COVID-19 vaccines.

“The reason Ghana was the first country to receive the COVAX vaccine is that they had the strongest application, and the reason they had the strongest application is they can guarantee the delivery of this vaccine to any health facility or hospital in the country at low cost and very high reliability,” Zipline’s CEO Keller Rinaudo told The Verge.

…Zipline operates four distribution centers in Ghana, each of which is part drone airport and part medical warehouse, housing a fleet of 30 fixed-wing drones as well as medical supplies. The aircraft fly to their destination autonomously, drop off packages via parachute, and return home.

Zipline says each distribution center can make deliveries in a 22,500 sq km surrounding area (8,750 sq mi). Since 2019, the company has made more than 50,000 deliveries in Ghana, including more than 1m vaccines, and claims its services can reach 12 million people — just over a third of the country’s total population. Zipline’s drones can deliver to hospitals, but also to temporary mobile clinics that will be used to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine in the country’s more remote areas.

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Apple hit by privacy complaint by leading French tech association • Sifted

Chris O’Brien:

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France’s startup association has filed a privacy complaint against Apple alleging that the latest version of iOS is collecting users’ data without their permission. 

France Digitale, which represents the nation’s entrepreneurs and VCs, on Tuesday asked the country’s privacy watchdog, the Commission Nationale de L’informatique et des Libertés (CNIL) to investigate iOS 14 for privacy violations.

According to the complaint, Apple may be violating Europe’s GDPR rules because it is collecting user data for ad tracking services without explicitly asking permission.

The allegations would seem to contradict not just Apple’s image as a privacy-friendly company, but also the widespread praise iOS 14 has received for a new feature that will limit ad-tracking for apps. The move also represents an escalation of tensions between Apple and France Digitale, which has gone public with its criticism of the iPhone-maker in recent weeks for what it has described as abusive App Store practices that are harming startups.

“We are using all legal tools that are in our hands in order to make them sit at the table and realize that they need to reset their relationship with startups,” France Digitale CEO Nicolas Brien told Sifted. “The very first legal tool is this complaint with the privacy watchdog, but there will be others.”

Responding to news of the complaint, a spokesperson for Apple said: “The allegations in the complaint are patently false and will be seen for what they are, a poor attempt by those who track users to distract from their own actions and mislead regulators and policymakers.”

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That’s quite the salty response from Apple.
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Sonos Roam officially announced for $169, preorders start now • The Verge

Chris Welch:

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I haven’t heard the thing firsthand, so I can’t yet say how it compares to a UE Boom, JBL Charge, or one of Bose’s portable speakers. Sonos has packed the Roam with “two Class-H amplifiers.” There’s a tweeter for high frequencies and a “custom racetrack” mid-woofer — similar in shape to what’s in the Arc soundbar — that “ensures faithful playback of mid-range frequencies and maximizes low-end output.”

Sonos is also bringing automatic Trueplay to the Roam, so it will tune audio output for the best results based on whatever room or environment that the speaker is in. (It does this by using the built-in mics, which are also there for the purpose of hands-free Alexa and Google Assistant voice commands.) Two Roams can be set up as a stereo pair over Wi-Fi, but unfortunately, this option isn’t available when you’re playing music over Bluetooth.

Unlike the Move, which made you choose between Wi-Fi and Bluetooth modes, the Roam takes advantage of both connections at once. You can play something from your phone with Bluetooth on the Roam and extend it across your whole multiroom Sonos system. (Yes, the company confirmed to me that this is also an easy way to get Bluetooth-enabled turntables playing on all your Sonos speakers.) Apple’s AirPlay 2 is also supported, and as always, you can play audio from a ton of services through the Sonos mobile app.

The Roam can last for up to 10 hours of audio playback on a charge, and a USB-C charging cable comes in the box. As I said last week, Sonos is also selling a wireless charging stand — the Roam attaches to it magnetically — but you can use any Qi wireless charger that will fit the speaker when it’s standing up, so that’s nice. When not in use, the Roam can last for up to 10 days of standby time.

…Another neat Roam trick is called Sound Swap. Just hold the play / pause button on the top for three seconds, and the Roam will pass the music it’s playing to whatever other Sonos speaker in your system is closest. The way Sonos achieves this is clever: when Sound Swap is activated, all of your Sonos speakers will emit a high-pitched frequency that people (and dogs, I’m told) can’t hear. This is how the Roam figures out which one is nearby.

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Sound Swap, like Trueplay before it, seems to be the sort of little extra tweak that could help you stay in its ecosystem. (You’d need to be in it for Sound Swap to be useful.)
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You’re on allocation • Digits to Dollars

Jay Greenberg on the reality of the chip shortage that’s hitting everyone at the moment:

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In the ensuing months, as conditions worsened, chip customers have responded in all the normal ways, as have the suppliers. The problem is that restarting a manufacturing line is not as simple as flipping a switch. It takes time to restart, and especially in China, long closures meant the loss of staff, with weeks required to train replacements. Machines have to be retooled and cleaned, inventories restocked etc. For their part, customers have taken a whole host of measures to ensure supply. The tech press is full of stories of companies doing everything they can do jump ahead of the line. Suppliers are putting customers “On Allocation”, meaning only sending out a portion of orders, with a rank ordering of customers.

The dirty secret of chip industry practices is double ordering. Maybe a company buying a 100,000 parts from a supplier is not enough to get the supplier’s attention, but 200,000 makes the buyer a top priority customer. So the customer orders 200,000 parts, vaulting them to first in line. You can see where this is headed. Whenever the shortages ease, the customer cancels half their order. And since chips diminish in value quickly (thank you Moore’s Law), the supplier is stuck with inventory of a part that it probably now has to discount. We have not reached that point in the cycle, but we think customers are so desperate that they are not only double ordering but likely triple ordering. When the bubble bursts, the problem is going to be that much larger.

Now some people are arguing that these shortages will persist into 2022. We think that is unlikely. Anecdotally, both of our clients who were suffering supply shortages in October found that their suppliers resolved their shortages far faster than feared, with parts available much sooner than the worst case scenarios.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1502: Russia’s vaccine disinformation campaign, Biden gets antitrustful, Huawei slashes smartphone orders, empty Olympics?, and more

  1. The “social media equivalent of the BBC” is hard to imagine, since by definition social media is about the general population, but the BBC is dedicated to factual reporting (note for critics, of course they may fall short, but they do try). Wikipedia is a bad match, since as I keep pointing out, descriptively it’s about summarizing educated Western media (which is a big reason it’s getting good press nowadays), not expertise. Remember, Wikipedia’s unofficial motto is “Experts Are Scum”. I suppose the idea might be a social media site with algorithms and structures trying to optimize for thoughtful discussion, though obviously that’s much easier said than done. It’s a cliche now that e.g. Twitter is architecturally optimized for hate and mobbing – but once that’s said, where does one go from there? Politically, I doubt one could get the amount of money necessary to maintain a broad-based site which even made an attempt. Then there would be the problem of defending it against all the factions which would try to destroy it for partisan purposes, as seen with the attacks on the BBC. It’d have to thread a whole pile of needles.

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