Start Up No.1539: social networks’ free speech retreat, gig workers targeted in phone scam, iOS is Epic Games’s 5th biggest earner, and more

The US CDC won’t tell you, but based on what we know, wearing masks while outdoors has probably never been necessary throughout the pandemic. CC-licensed photo by Kristoffer Trolle on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. One-third done already. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

On social media, American-style free speech is dead • WIRED

Gilad Edelman interviews Evelyn Douek, a Harvard doctoral student who has written an article in the Columbia Law Review pointing out how the pandemic dismantled the social networks’ claims to be free speech havens:


GE: One point you make is that, in this First Amendment–style approach, the distinctions are more categorical. Can you give an example of a kind of content moderation decision that embodies that way of looking at it?

ED: Yeah, so this is really important, because it’s one of the defining features of American free speech jurisprudence that the rest of the world has like looked at and gone, Mmm, not so much. It is a bit of technical, and so to break it down, let’s take, for example, adult nudity.

The way that it started [for social media] was fairly unsophisticated. It was like, “If there’s boobs, take it down.” That was the dominant approach for a while. And then people would go, Hold on, you’re removing a whole bunch of things that have societal value. Like people raising awareness about breast cancer, or people breastfeeding that shouldn’t be stigmatized. Or, in a bunch of cultures, adult nudity and breasts are a perfectly normal, accepted, celebrated kind of expression. So gradually this category of adult nudity became, first of all, untenable as an absolute category. And so it got sort of broken down into finer and finer distinctions that no longer really looks like a solid category, but looks much more like, OK we’ll take these finer and finer sort of instances and balance, what’s the social cost of this, what’s the benefit, and how should we reconcile that and approach it in a more proportionate manner?

GE: So it sounds like what you’re saying is a categorical approach to content moderation attempts to draw pretty bright lines around certain categories of posts that are not allowed, versus everything else that is allowed. But over time, you have to keep slicing these categories more and more thinly. And at a certain point, maybe it’s hard to say exactly where, it stops looking like a true category at all, because the judgments have to get so nuanced.

Yeah, that’s basically it. Let’s take another category: false speech. That was a category that was, like, absolutely protected by platforms pretty much universally for the history of content moderation. It was like, “The fact that it’s false is not enough for us to get involved and we’re not going to look at that any further. ‘It’s just false’ is not a reason that we will inquire into the value of that speech.”

The pandemic really changed that.


It really did. I devote a whole chapter of my forthcoming book (out in June) to looking at how and why the social networks changed their attitude to removing content when Covid-19 appeared. (You might, if you can think back to the 2016 Olympics, be able to think of an example when Facebook in particular proved very unwilling to remove content about a different virus.)
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The CDC’s new guidelines are too timid and too complicated • The Atlantic

Zeynep Tufekci on the US CDC’s new guidelines about when you can and can’t wear a mask, which had an accompanying chart that looked like ratatouille:


To add to the confusion, in earlier guidelines, the CDC already said that vaccinated people could meet indoors without masks even if one of the households had unvaccinated members. It’s confusing to say that vaccinated people can meet indoors without masks with unvaccinated people in one guideline, but that they should wear masks outdoors in a crowd in another guideline, without further explanation of why. If the idea is that, in crowds, we should keep masks for everyone because of sociological reasons, to avoid the awkwardness of selective mask enforcement, the CDC should just say so.

What about rules for vaccinated people indoors, then? One could argue that the science is already fairly strong that the vaccinated are likely fine even indoors, especially if community transmission isn’t very high, and that the CDC guidelines implicitly assume this. That said, one can concede that this part of the empirical record is still evolving. However, that’s not currently relevant for public rules and behavior, because just like we can’t tell only the sick to wear masks, we cannot tell only the vaccinated to chuck their masks indoors—a grocery-store clerk shouldn’t have to police this. For now, indoor spaces have to keep masks as a rule simply for sociological reasons. We should make that explicit too.

The CDC needs clearer, science-based guidelines that inform and empower us. People do not need a complicated patchwork of charts with rigid, binary rules. The science supports a simple guideline that allows for the removal of all mask mandates outdoors, except for unvaccinated people in prolonged close contact, especially that involving talking, yelling, or singing.


The UK’s rules are at least simple, even if they’re just as science-lite in explanation as the CDC’s: hands [wash them – unnecessary, but it comforts people], face [ditto], space [social distance], fresh air. Masks are only presently required inside places you don’t live (shops, gyms, etc), and have never been required outside.

The CDC’s reluctance to inject any science into explaining its advice may say a lot about how terrible most people are at understanding this topic. Ironic, since not understanding can get you killed.
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Scammers are hacking Target’s gig workers and stealing their money • Vice

Lauren Kaori Gurley:


On the morning of March 28, a gig worker near Tampa, Florida, was shopping an order for Shipt, Target’s delivery platform, when he received an email from “Shipt Support” asking him to reset his password. 

The worker says he didn’t request to reset his password, but didn’t think much of the email and went on with this day. Later that evening, the worker says he was sitting at home on his couch when he received a phone call from Shipt’s corporate headquarters’ phone number. Someone identifying themselves as a Shipt employee and addressing the worker by his first name said there had been unusual activity on his account regarding his password and asked him to read back a code that had been emailed to him to verify his identity. 

Remembering the password reset email from earlier that day, the worker provided an authentication code that he’d received via email from Shipt. Shortly after, he received an email notifying him that someone had added a debit card to his account. 

When the worker checked his account again, he realized someone had logged in and cashed out his entire paycheck—$499.51. “I noticed my withdrawal balance was zero,” he said in a public video uploaded to Facebook. “At that point, I’m livid. I’m pissed.” 

In recent weeks, personal shoppers on Target’s delivery app, which boasts roughly 300,000 personal shoppers in the United States, have been repeatedly targeted by scammers hoping to steal their earnings by phishing gig workers’ credentials from them. 


The systemic flaw here is in the US phone network (also found in other phone networks), in not having authentication methods for the origin of phone calls made over the network. Websites have developed SSL so that you can’t pretend to be a site. I don’t pretend to understand the underlying complexity in phone networks, but they’re pretty good at billing you based on the origin and destination of your call, so it seems strange they’re so lax about how they let calls represent themselves.

Phone networks are infrastructure too. Just saying.
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Windows 10 now active on 1.3 billion devices, says Microsoft • ExtremeTech

Ryan Whitwam:


It’s been just over a year since Microsoft announced it had hit its goal of 1 billion monthly active Windows 10 devices. It took a while to get there, but Microsoft now says Windows 10 is growing even faster, reaching a whopping 1.3 billion active installs in the last quarter. Like a number of other technology firms, Microsoft has the global pandemic to thank for its windfall. It turns out people buy more computers when they’re stuck at home. 

“Over a year into the pandemic, digital adoption curves aren’t slowing down. They’re accelerating, and it’s just the beginning,” said CEO Satya Nadella. The latest device count comes from Microsoft’s earnings report, which featured a stunning $41.7bn in revenue for the quarter.

When Microsoft launched Windows 10 in 2015, it said it expected to reach a billion active monthly devices in summer 2018, but it missed that target by about 18 months. A big piece of Windows 10’s dominance was supposed to be smartphones, and Microsoft decided to abandon its Windows Phone program a few years later. It now makes Android phones, well, one phone so far. The Surface brand, which includes Windows laptops and the Duo Android phone, saw a 12% revenue lift in the last quarter. 


Growing by 300 million in a single year is pretty remarkable, given that 290m PCs were sold. But that suggests upgrades from older ones have really slowed down.
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Epic Apple documents show PS4, not iPhone, is Fortnite’s cash cow • The Verge

Jay Peters:


Earlier this month, we learned that the iOS version of Fortnite was a huge revenue driver for Epic Games — the game earned more than $700m from iOS customers over the two years before it was pulled by Apple, according to court documents (PDF) released ahead of Epic’s trial against the iPhone maker. But even though iOS Fortnite players brought in a staggering amount of money for Epic, iOS isn’t the biggest platform in terms of revenue for the game — apparently, it might even be among the smallest.

Court documents reveal that PlayStation 4 generated 46.8% of Fortnite’s total revenues from March 2018 through July 2020, while Xbox One, the second-highest platform, generated 27.5%. iOS ranked fifth, with just 7% of total revenue. The remaining 18.7% would have been split between Android, Nintendo Switch, and PCs.

In 2020, iOS revenues were projected to be an even smaller piece of the pie: just 5.8%, compared to 24% for Xbox One and “almost 40%” for PlayStation 4, according to a new deposition (PDF) of Epic Games’ David Nikdel, a senior programmer who works on the backend services for Fortnite.

“iOS was always the lowest or second lowest if Android was listed, correct?” lawyers asked Joe Babcock, Epic’s CFO until March 2020, in a separate deposition. The answer was yes.


And because of that, Epic needed to run its own app store? That doesn’t quite make sense.
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Global electric car sales set for further strong growth after 40% rise in 2020 • International Energy Agency


The IEA’s Global Electric Vehicle Outlook 2021 finds that despite the pandemic setting off a cascade of economic recessions, a record 3 million new electric cars were registered in 2020, a 41% increase from the previous year. By comparison, the global automobile market contracted 16% in 2020. Electric cars’ strong momentum has continued into this year, with sales in the first quarter of 2021 reaching nearly two and half times their level in the same period a year earlier.

Last year’s increase brought the number of electric cars on the world’s roads to more than 10 million, with another roughly 1 million electric vans, heavy trucks and buses. For the first time last year, Europe overtook China as the centre of the global electric car market. Electric car registrations in Europe more than doubled to 1.4 million, while in China they increased 9% to 1.2 million.

“While they can’t do the job alone, electric vehicles have an indispensable role to play in reaching net-zero emissions worldwide,” said Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the IEA. “Current sales trends are very encouraging, but our shared climate and energy goals call for even faster market uptake. Governments should now be doing the essential groundwork to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles by using economic recovery packages to invest in battery manufacturing and the development of widespread and reliable charging infrastructure.”


Note how the US is very much not the centre of the electric car market: at most there were 0.4 million cars registered there in the year.
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I Photoshop Paddington into another movie until I forget • Jay Chou on Reddit

These are wonderful: now that (of course) Paddington 2 is the most popular film of all time (as measured by critics), he is adding the Peruvian bear into scenes from all sorts of other films. Particularly good: Justice League (got to look hard) and the film P2 displaced, Citizen Kane.
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The wind and solar boom is here • The New York Times

Farhad Manjoo:


“The fossil fuel era is over,” declares Carbon Tracker Initiative, a nonprofit think tank that studies the economics of clean energy, in a new report. Kingsmill Bond, its energy strategist, told me that the transition to renewable energy will alter geopolitics and global economics on a scale comparable to that of the Industrial Revolution.

He cites one telling example to illustrate how and why. The world’s largest conventional oil field, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, has the capacity to produce nearly four million barrels of oil per day. If you were to convert Ghawar’s annual oil output into electricity, you’d get almost one petawatt-hour of power per year. (That’s nearly enough to power Japan for a year; the world’s annual electrical energy demand is 27 petawatt-hours.)

The Ghawar oil field takes up a lot of space — about 3,000 square miles, around the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. But it soon might sound crazy to use that much sunny land for drilling oil. Bond estimates that if you put up solar panels on an area the size of Ghawar, you could now generate more than one petawatt-hour per year — more than you’d get from the oil buried under Ghawar.

But the oil will one day run out, while the sun will keep shining over Ghawar — and not just there, but everywhere else, too. This is the magic of the sun, as Bond explains: Only Saudi Arabia has a Ghawar, but with solar power almost every country in the world with enough space can generate one petawatt-hour of power (and without endangering the planet to boot).


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Nuclear energy • AVC

Fred Wilson is a venture capitalist (hence “AVC”):


When I was in my early 20s, I had a conversation with my dad. I told him I was against nuclear power because it was dangerous and because it created radioactive waste that we had no idea how to safely dispose of. He replied that there certainly were problems with nuclear energy but that they paled in comparison to those of burning fossil fuels. This was before greenhouse gases and climate change were front and center in my mind and the minds of most people. I was not convinced by my dad’s argument.

Forty years later, my dad is no longer with us, but his words ring loudly in my ears. I have come full circle on nuclear energy and now see it as way more attractive than most other forms of generating energy.


Teenager: “my parents are wrong about so many things.”
Same person, 20 years later: “I can see now that my parents have changed their views about lots of things.” (Joke courtesy my older brother, told to me many decades ago. Thanks, Steve, it stuck.)

This is also Wilson’s way of saying that his company, USV, has a big new climate venture capital fund. Not sure they’ll really have enough money to make a difference to the development of fission or fusion, but can’t hurt, I suppose.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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