Start Up No.1544: do AirTags really aid stalkers?, fixing Section 230, the heat pump hassle, Facebook blocks Signal ads, and more


A “tip jar” scheme is coming to Twitter – which feels like it could lead to some desperate behaviour. CC-licensed photo by MTSOfan on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. It’s behind you. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


It’s Friday! (Depending on location.) Shouldn’t you preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book, just in case?


Introducing Tip Jar • Twitter Blog

Esther Crawford is Twitter’s senior product manager:

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We $ee you – sharing your PayPal link after your Tweet goes viral, adding your $Cashtag to your profile so people can support your work, dropping your Venmo handle on your birthday or if you just need some extra help. You drive the conversation on Twitter and we want to make it easier for you to support each other beyond Follows, Retweets, and Likes. Today, we’re introducing Tip Jar – a new way for people to send and receive tips.

You’ll know an account’s Tip Jar is enabled if you see a Tip Jar icon next to the Follow button on their profile page. Tap the icon, and you’ll see a list of payment services or platforms that the account has enabled. Select whichever payment service or platform you prefer and you’ll be taken off Twitter to the selected app where you can show your support in the amount you choose. The services* you can add today include Bandcamp, Cash App, Patreon, PayPal and Venmo. Twitter takes no cut. On Android, tips can also be sent within Spaces.

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Twitter is about to take a very weird turn, I think. Let’s call it the Era of Thirst.
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Apple AirTags only partly stop stalking • The Washington Post

Geoffrey Fowler:

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Clip a button-sized AirTag onto your keys, and it’ll help you find where you accidentally dropped them in the park. But if someone else slips an AirTag into your bag or car without your knowledge, it could also be used to covertly track everywhere you go. Along with helping you find lost items, AirTags are a new means of inexpensive, effective stalking.

I know because I tested AirTags by letting a Washington Post colleague pretend to stalk me. And Apple’s efforts to stop the misuse of its trackers just aren’t sufficient.

To discourage what it calls “unwanted tracking,” Apple built technology into AirTags to warn potential victims, including audible alarms and messages about suspicious AirTags that pop up on iPhones. To put Apple’s personal security protections to the test, my colleague Jonathan Baran paired an AirTag with his iPhone, slipped his tag in my backpack (with my permission), and then tracked me for a week from across San Francisco Bay.

I got multiple alerts: from the hidden AirTag and on my iPhone. But it wasn’t hard to find ways an abusive partner could circumvent Apple’s systems. To name one: The audible alarm only rang after three days — and then it turned out to be just 15 seconds of light chirping. And another: while an iPhone alerted me that an unknown AirTag was moving with me, similar warnings aren’t available for the roughly half of Americans who use Android phones.

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The argument I hear is that this would enable stalking in “mixed” relationships where the stalky partner has an iPhone and the stalked person has an Android. Well, OK, though is that a common setup? It must be a fraction of a fraction. More to the point, would-be stalkers can just buy GPS tracking devices quite cheaply on Amazon (one readers suggests you try a search on “hidden GPS tracking device” – they’re cheaper than an AirTag). No worries about an iPhone-carrying stalking target being warned either.

So yes, AirTags *can* in theory be used to stalk people. But more effective ways already exist, and have done for a while. Meanwhile, AirTags owners: there’s a groovy hidden interface that’s more like a submarine sonar.
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Everything you’ve heard about Section 230 is wrong • WIRED

Gilad Edelman:

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it’s hard to prove Section 230 is the reason for the success of American social media giants. The internet was invented in the US, which gave its tech sector an enormous head start. America’s biggest tech successes include corporate titans whose core businesses don’t depend on user- generated content: Microsoft, Apple, Amazon. Tesla didn’t become the world’s most valuable car company because of Section 230.

Another response is that even if Facebook does owe its wild success to Section 230, perhaps that’s not a reason to pop champagne. The reason we’re talking about reforming tech laws in the first place is that “the internet as we know it” often seems optimized less for users than for the shareholders of the largest corporations. Section 230’s defenders may be right that without it, Facebook and Google would not be the world-devouring behemoths they are today. If the law had developed slowly, if they faced potential liability for user behavior, the impossibility of careful moderation at scale might have kept them from growing as quickly as they did and spreading as far. What would we have gotten in their place? Perhaps smaller, more differentiated platforms, an ecosystem in which more conversations took place within intentional communities rather than in a public square full of billions of people, many of them behaving like lunatics.

As I said, that’s an alternate timeline. From the vantage point of 2021, it’s probably too late to ditch Section 230 and let the courts figure it all out from scratch. Only Congress can scrape away the decades of judicial interpretations that have attached like barnacles to the original legislation. The question is how to change the law to address its worst side effects without placing internet companies under impossible legal burdens.

There are a number of ideas on the table, ranging in concreteness from op-eds to white papers to proposed, sometimes even bipartisan, legislation. And they vary according to what problem the authors are most interested in solving.

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A better headline for this (long) article would be “How Section 230 can and should be changed to improve things”. Even if you already understand S230 (though most people don’t), it gives some thorough history. The suggestions for how to improve it, by paring away unneeded protections, are definitely worth reading. The catch: it’s subscriber-only, so you might need to see if it has been syndicated elsewhere. (Try a search on the headline.)
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£10,000 to increase your energy bill: making the economics of heat pumps stack up • Institute for Global Change

Tim Lord:

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perhaps the most important enabling technology for net zero in the UK is the humble heat pump – a box about one metre cubed on the side of our houses which has the potential to decarbonise our home heating.

While there are debates about the right way of decarbonising UK heating, there is no doubt that heat pumps will need to play a big role.  And the government has acknowledged that. We currently install heat pumps at a rate of around 30,000 per year.  The government’s target is to install 600,000 a year by 2028.  That figure is likely to need to rise to 1.5 million a year by 2035.

It’s hard to overstate the scale of ramp-up that’s required to hit those targets.

To illustrate: if you stood on Whitehall and faced north, a chain of all the heat pumps installed last year would stretch to the M25. 

By 2028, we’ll need that line of heat pumps to stretch to Edinburgh. By 2035, it would need to stretch all the way to John O’Groats… and back again.

To get that level of take-up, we need a proposition for consumers that is desirable. But at the moment, the basic consumer proposition is: pay £10,000 for a device which you don’t understand, and which will increase your energy bill.   And that’s if you can find an installer to fit it.

Addressing that problem is a multi-faceted issue, which I will return to in future. But there is one key element which has to work, and which we can do something about relatively quickly: the running costs need to be lower than for a gas boiler.

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You may not have heard of the IGC (I hadn’t). Its full title is the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. (No lowballing there.) I wonder what David Cameron’s and Theresa May’s institutes will aim to do.
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The Instagram ads Facebook won’t show you • Signal Blog

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Facebook’s own tools have the potential to divulge what is otherwise unseen. It’s already possible to catch fragments of these truths in the ads you’re shown; they are glimmers that reflect the world of a surveilling stranger who knows you. We wanted to use those same tools to directly highlight how most technology works. We wanted to buy some Instagram ads.

We created a multi-variant targeted ad designed to show you the personal data that Facebook collects about you and sells access to. The ad would simply display some of the information collected about the viewer which the advertising platform uses. Facebook was not into that idea.

Facebook is more than willing to sell visibility into people’s lives, unless it’s to tell people about how their data is being used. Being transparent about how ads use people’s data is apparently enough to get banned; in Facebook’s world, the only acceptable usage is to hide what you’re doing from your audience.

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In its way, this is just like Apple blocking apps on the App Store from saying that Apple takes 30% of digital transactions, or advertising other places to subscribe. The only real crime in Silicon Valley is to reveal what’s behind the curtain.
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Nick Clegg steers Facebook’s Trump decision • The New York Times

Adam Satariano and Cecilia Kang:

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Inside Facebook, where Mr. Zuckerberg leans on a group of friends and early employees for counsel, Mr. Clegg earned the trust of his new boss. At the company’s headquarters, where proximity to Mr. Zuckerberg is power, Mr. Clegg’s desk was placed nearby. He orchestrated a trip through Europe with Mr. Zuckerberg, meeting with European Union leaders in Brussels and President Emmanuel Macron of France in Paris.

Since Mr. Clegg’s arrival, Facebook has shifted some of its policy positions. It now appears more accepting of regulation and higher taxes. He overcame reluctance from Mr. Zuckerberg and others in the company to ban political ads in the weeks before Election Day last year. And he was the main internal supporter for recently announced product changes that give users more control over what posts they see in their Facebook feeds.

“He has a track record of knowing what it’s like to work inside a cabinet that needs to make decisions quickly and move at the speed of a country, or in this case a platform,” said Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer, who worked with Mr. Clegg on the user-control changes.

Critics say Mr. Clegg’s role is an attempt by Facebook to use a respected global political figure to soften its image. Despite pledges to accept new government regulation, the company continues to fight strong oversight, policymakers said. Others said changes made by Mr. Clegg did not address core problems with the company’s privacy-invading business model, which is optimized to keep people scrolling their Facebook feeds, amplifying divisive and inflammatory content and exaggerating political divisions in society.

“‘Are you sure you’re on the right side here?’ That is the question that will get thrown back at Clegg,” said Damian Collins, a Conservative member of the British Parliament who led an investigation of social media in politics. “He’s taken a lot of money to go work for a company that doesn’t meet the highest ethical standards.”

Nowhere has Mr. Clegg’s influence been felt more than in the creation of the oversight board, an idea that had been kicked around internally but gained momentum after he joined.

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The profile notes, ever-so-cattily, that Clegg wouldn’t speak to the writers but did provide a list of people who’d give positive opinions of him. However: dislike him if you wish, but he’s evidently a very smart operator.
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A simpler and safer future — without passwords • Google Blog

Mark Risher is Google’s director of product management, identity and user security:

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One of the best ways to protect your account from a breached or bad password is by having a second form of verification in place – another way for your account to confirm it is really you logging in. Google has been doing this for years, ensuring that your Google Account is protected by multiple layers of verification.

Today we ask people who have enrolled in two-step verification (2SV) to confirm it’s really them with a simple tap via a Google prompt on their phone whenever they sign in. Soon we’ll start automatically enrolling users in 2SV if their accounts are appropriately configured. (You can check the status of your account in our Security Checkup). Using their mobile device to sign in gives people a safer and more secure authentication experience than passwords alone.

We are also building advanced security technologies into devices to make this multi-factor authentication seamless and even more secure than a password. For example, we’ve built our security keys directly into Android devices, and launched our Google Smart Lock app for iOS, so now people can use their phones as their secondary form of authentication. 

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Essentially, this means not using passwords (or at least not relying solely on them) and obliging people to start using 2-factor authentication for logins.
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The occasional terror and utter confusion of dating in the digital age • Vanity Fair

Nancy Jo Sales, in an extract from her forthcoming book “Nothing Personal: My Secret Life in the Dating App Inferno”:

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I got my first dick pic from a Houston tech millionaire. He didn’t look much like a millionaire; he looked like the Dude from The Big Lebowski. He was sitting on the back patio of a Houston bar where I’d gone because somebody told me there would be tech millionaires there who liked to invest in movies. There were Lamborghinis and Ferraris parked out front—not really my scene, but if I was going to get a movie made, I was going to need some money, and I had heard that schmoozing rich guys was one way you could get it.

The tech dude was spread out on a piece of lawn furniture, drinking a cocktail and scratching his balls—foreshadowing, in a way, for the dick pic. Everybody was treating him like he was a king, although he was clearly high and quite greasy-looking. Somebody introduced me to him, and, after some pleasantries, I launched into a pitch for my film (then envisioned as a companion piece to my book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers). I told him about the girls I’d been interviewing at the Miss Teen USA beauty pageant in Houston, and how they’d told me they had lost their self-esteem through cyberbullying and having their nudes shared nonconsensually online. And now, they said, they were seeking “empowerment” through being in this beauty pageant. I told him how complicated it all was and how it made me feel sad.

The tech dude sat back, listening with a slit-eyed expression, and said it all sounded very interesting, and how much did I think I would need to make this film?

“I don’t know,” I said, “maybe half a million?”

“How about a million?” he said. He gave me his number. I was elated.

I let about a week pass, which I thought was a good amount of time to wait to contact the tech dude again. He’d told me to text him when I got back to New York, and so, early one evening on a weekday, I texted him, reminding him of who I was and of our conversation.

“When would be a good time to call to talk?” I asked.

And he sent me a dick pic. With a text that said: “How about we talk about this?”

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It seems to be worth pointing out that she’d done well not to be a recipient sooner than that. But why so many wayward wangs winging about? She examines that.
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June 2019: How Apple’s app review process for the App Store works • CNBC

Kif Leswing, in April 2019:

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People familiar with the matter told CNBC that an executive board led by Apple marketing Senior Vice President Phil Schiller meets every week to discuss controversial apps or other iPhone software programs that may infringe Apple’s App Store guidelines.

The “executive review board,” or ERB, sets policy for Apple’s Worldwide Developer Relations department, which is often called App Review. ERB is also the body that makes the final call on whether an app can stay on the store or is banned.

For example, last year, the ERB and Schiller made the decision to ban the Infowars app from the App Store for violating content policies after publishing threats to a reporter, a person familiar with the matter said.

Inside the app review team, Apple employees manually screen every single iPhone app before they become available to download on Apple’s platforms, the people said. Apple recently opened new App Review offices in Cork, Ireland, and Shanghai, China, according to a person familiar with the matter. The department has added significant headcount in recent years, they added.

Last month, Apple published a new webpage that explains the principles that govern the App Store as well as the most common reasons for rejection to show an increased level of transparency over previous years.

“We’re proud of the store we’ve built and the way we’ve built it,” Apple said on the page.

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Mentioned because it was brought up in the Epic v Apple case this week. Seems relevant somehow.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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