Start Up No.1557: Social media faces India ban, Russia funds vaccine disparagement, why robots need manners, vanishing pianos, and more


How good are you at counting items in a photo? Don’t worry, there’s an app that will do the job for you. CC-licensed photo by Trevor Haldenby on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Counted by a computer. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Will India ban WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter from May 26? Unlikely, but it is complicated • MSN.com

India Tech:

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Almost all internet companies, whether they are social media networks, messaging services, news organisations or even streaming services like Netflix, all have to follow the new rules [announced in February with a three-month deadline]. The deadline to do so, that is to comply with the new rules, expires May 25. In other words, the next day means a big headache ahead for companies like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

First the big question: Will Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp be banned in India from May 26?

Unlikely. But if they do not comply with the new rules they will always be at risk of a significant government action against them. To understand this all, let’s first take a quick look at what the government is asking.

There are a number of new conditions and regulatory requirements that the government seeks to impose on social media companies. But a few significant ones are:

1- Big tech companies — the government calls them “significant social media” — must have a chief compliance officer in India who can respond to government demands and needs whenever required. For example, if the government requires data of User A from Twitter, and if the demand is legally valid, then this compliance officer will be responsible for producing this data.

2- The tech companies have also been asked to hire a nodal officer that will coordinate with law enforcement agencies 24 x 7 and whenever the government requires such coordination.

3- The social media companies have been asked to hire a grievance redressal officer, whom the social media users will be able to approach with their grievances if they have any.

4- And finally, companies like WhatsApp have been asked to ensure that they can trace a message to the original sender. Effectively this means breaking or circumventing end-to-end encryption on messages. Complying with such a request is incredibly challenging, if not outright impossible, for a service like WhatsApp.

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This all depends on how long the Indian government waits to enforce the rules. So let’s see what happens.
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This app will count literally anything you show it • Android Police

Michael Crider:

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CountThings is basically an app version of those famous scenes from Rain Man. And though it has some definite novelty potential, it’s actually designed for straight-laced industrial applications. The system uses pre-existing templates to analyze still images, counting up all of the similar items even when they’re arranged in nonsensical patterns that makes our pathetic meat-powered brains spin.

Logs of lumber stacked on a truck are a perfect example: the irregular circles are surprisingly difficult to count up by hand, since they don’t stack into neat rows and columns. But CountThings can do it in just a couple of seconds, using the template provided by the developer.

Because CountThings is an industrial tool, it’s not free. In fact it’s a long way from free: its in-app purchases for counting templates start at $20 and go up to $120. And that’s relatively inexpensive compared to the enterprise options, which start at $20 for 24 hours, with $2000 per year (for one device!) for the most complex video-based version of the tool.

The tool managed to get every key except the space bar, but missed six screws.

But if you just want to make your phone count stuff, you can download the app and try a few free scans for kicks. My results varied: while it’s excellent at getting anything with a regular, repeating shape, more complex outlines could fool it. It managed to count every key on my keyboard correctly (except the space key), but consistently missed a few screws spilled out onto my desk because some of them were bunched up or sitting on their heads.

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Seems like fun, and who wouldn’t want an app (available for all the platforms) that they could do some totally random counting with. The templates (in the link above) are fascinating: square bars, round bars, angle bars and so many more (all end-on of course).
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Influencers say Russia-linked PR agency asked them to disparage Pfizer vaccine • The Guardian

Jon Henley:

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French and German YouTubers, bloggers and influencers have been offered money by a supposedly UK-based PR agency with apparent Russian connections to falsely tell their followers the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is responsible for hundreds of deaths.

Fazze, which said it was an “influencer marketing platform … connecting bloggers and advertisers”, claimed to be based at 5 Percy Street in London but is not registered there. On Tuesday, it closed its website and made its Instagram account private.

The agency contacted several French health and science YouTubers last week and asked them, in poor English, to “explain … the death rate among the vaccinated with Pfizer is almost 3x higher than the vaccinated by AstraZeneca”.

The influencers were told to publish links on YouTube, Instagram or TikTok to reports in Le Monde, on Reddit and on the Ethical Hacker website about a leaked report containing data that supposedly substantiates the claim.

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The Russian misinformation campaign goes on – because it’s relatively cheap. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Apple employees are going public about workplace issues — and there’s no going back • The Verge

Zoe Schiffer:

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The events [of García-Martinez’s firing] stunned even the letter writers. They’d expected the note to cause a stir inside Apple, but they hadn’t intended for it to become public. “The leak was very shocking to everybody who was vocal and involved in writing the letter,” says one worker who asked to remain anonymous for fear of professional retaliation. “Either somebody is a very good actor or there’s someone else who felt like the letter was going to disappear unless it became public.”

A week after The Verge published the García Martínez letter, a group of Muslim employees at Apple penned a note calling for the company to release a statement in support of Palestine. When Tim Cook didn’t respond, the letter was leaked to The Verge.

The two letters, and their leaks, are signs of a slow cultural shift at Apple. Employees, once tight-lipped about internal problems, are now joining a wave of public dissent that’s roiling Silicon Valley. Employees say this is partly because Apple’s typical avenues for reporting don’t work for big cultural issues. They also note the company rolled out Slack in 2019, allowing workers to find and organize with one another.

Now, some are beginning to feel that the company culture has harmed diversity and inclusion efforts. “Apple’s secrecy works great for protecting our customers and our products, but it hinders inclusion and diversity,” says an anonymous employee. “There’s a lack of education around what is confidential versus what is your protected speech and you should speak up about.”

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Very easy to claim everything is going to change, but the Palestine letter didn’t get any response, and Apple could – at the ultimate extreme – take the same approach as Basecamp and just tell people it’s not a topic to talk about inside the company any more. Sure, it’s a lot bigger, but journalistic confidence is cheap.
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Galaxy upcycling: how Samsung ruined its best idea in years • iFixit

Kevin Purdy:

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A small team of Samsung engineers showed us something exciting four years ago. It was novel, revolutionary, and not what you’d expect from the smartphone king. They wanted our help to make it real.

It wasn’t a folding phone, a robot, or a VR kit—this invention didn’t even have a price. It was a marketplace of clever uses for old, easily unlocked Samsung phones. This was exactly the kind of lifespan-prologinging idea that we love. We were instantly sold.

“There is another way to create even more value” than recycling, Samsung said in a video at the time. “It’s called upcycling.” With code and creativity, upcycling could turn a Galaxy S5 into a smart fish tank monitor, a controller for all your smart home devices, a weather station, a nanny cam, or lots more. Upcycling not only kept your old phone from being shredded or stuck in junk-drawer purgatory, it could keep you from buying more single-purpose devices. It was a smart way to reduce our collective upgrade guilt.

We were so excited, in fact, that when Samsung asked us to help launch the product in the fall of 2017, we jumped at the chance. You’ll see iFixit’s name and logo all over Samsung’s original Galaxy Upcycling materials. Samsung, a company without much of a public environmental message, was tossing around big ideas born at a grassroots level. This was something new. We were jazzed, and after validating the concept with working code in our labs, lent our name and credibility to the effort.

But sometimes well-intentioned projects get muzzled inside giant companies.

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This is the story of how it got muzzled.
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Robots, manners and stress • Light Blue Touchpaper

Professor Ross Anderson:

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As robots develop situational awareness, like humans, and react to real or potential attacks by falling back to a more cautious mode of operation, a hostile environment will cause the equivalent of stress. Sometimes this will be deliberate; one can imagine constant low-level engagement between drones at tense national borders, just as countries currently probe each others’ air defences. But much of the time it may well be a by-product of poor automation design coupled with companies hustling aggressively for consumers’ attention.

This suggests a missing factor in machine-learning research: manners. We’ve evolved manners to signal to others that our intent is not hostile, and to negotiate the many little transactions that in a hostile environment might lead to a tussle for dominance. Yet these are hard for robots. Food-delivery robots can become unpopular for obstructing and harassing other pavement users; and one of the show-stoppers for automated driving is the difficulty that self-driving cars have in crossing traffic, or otherwise negotiating precedence with other road users. And even in the military, manners have a role – from the chivalry codes of medieval knights to the more modern protocols whereby warships and warplanes warn other craft before opening fire. If we let loose swarms of killer drones with no manners, conflict will be more likely.

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The irony: Anderson’s team were invited to talk about this at a conference with two convenors, but one made too many difficult demands. Manners! But they’ve put a paper online.
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COVID-19 vaccine breakthrough infections reported to CDC, US, January 1–April 30, 2021 • MMWR

The CDC has the latest data:

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A total of 10,262 SARS-CoV-2 vaccine breakthrough infections had been reported from 46 US states and territories as of April 30, 2021. [A 0.01% incidence, given the 101 million people who were fully vaccinated.]

Among these cases, 6,446 (63%) occurred in females, and the median patient age was 58 years (interquartile range = 40–74 years). Based on preliminary data, 2,725 (27%) vaccine breakthrough infections were asymptomatic, 995 (10%) patients were known to be hospitalized, and 160 (2%) patients died.

Among the 995 hospitalized patients, 289 (29%) were asymptomatic or hospitalized for a reason unrelated to COVID-19. The median age of patients who died was 82 years (interquartile range = 71–89 years); 28 (18%) decedents were asymptomatic or died from a cause unrelated to COVID-19. Sequence data were available from 555 (5%) reported cases, 356 (64%) of which were identified as SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern,§ including B.1.1.7 (199; 56%), B.1.429 (88; 25%), B.1.427 (28; 8%), P.1 (28; 8%), and B.1.351 (13; 4%).

As of April 30, 2021, approximately 101 million persons in the United States had been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.¶ However, during the surveillance period, SARS-CoV-2 transmission continued at high levels in many parts of the country, with approximately 355,000 COVID-19 cases reported nationally during the week of April 24–30, 2021.**

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Also worth noting: “The proportion of reported vaccine breakthrough infections attributed to variants of concern has also been similar to the proportion of these variants circulating throughout the United States.” Though they point out that they can’t be certain if this is all the cases that occurred, particularly because some might be asymptomatic.
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Share of time spent listening to audio at home in the US increases 44% during COVID-19 disruption • Edison Research

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Edison Research measures the location of all listening, and the table below shows the share of time spent with audio by location. Findings show that while total time spent listening was only slightly lower during the COVID-19 disruptions in the United States, there was a considerable shift in where that audio consumption happened. While 48.5% of all listening occurred at home before COVID-19 (and this finding has been very consistent since Share of Ear began in 2014), 70.0% of all listening was at-home in May.  All three other locations – car, work and ‘other’ — dropped. 

“It’s important to recognize that our survey asks where the respondent is when they are listening to audio – not what they are doing,” said Edison Research director Laura Ivey.  “The shift to ‘work-from-home’ for so many, especially office workers who tend to spend a lot of time with audio, is clearly reflected.” 

The enormous changes in daily life for so many Americans led to changes in what people are listening to and what device they are using to access their audio. 

Podcasting’s Share of Ear jumped significantly – up 26% from the Quarter 1 2020 report to this new update. During COVID-19 restrictions, 5.4% of all time spent with audio was with podcasts, up from 4.3% in Q1. While podcasting share increases with every update, this represents an all-time high for podcast listening share of all audio. 

Smart Speakers also hit a new high, with its share leaping by more than 40% (albeit from a relatively low base). During COVID-19 restrictions, 5.3% of all time spent with audio was through a smart speaker, up from 3.7% in Q1. 

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The podcasting feels like a slight surprise – weren’t people listening while they commuted before? – but the only surprise in the shift to home is that it isn’t more like 100%.
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David Berglas: how to make a concert grand vanish in a crowded room • YouTube

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I came across this in a Jason Kottke post: Berglas is now 94, and still being coy about how he does some of his tricks. But not this one, where he made a concert grand piano (the very biggest kind) disappear while he was speaking to an audience.
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Why Florida’s social media law will be struck down • Ars Technica

Jon Brodkin:

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Experts who say the new law is unconstitutional cite a previous case in which a similar Florida law was struck down. After [Florida governor Ron] DeSantis announced the proposal in February, First Amendment attorney Ari Cohn told Law & Crime that it “raises the same issue as a previous Florida law which required newspapers that criticized a political candidate to publish that candidate’s response.” In the 1974 case, Miami Herald v. Tornillo, “the Supreme Court struck down the law, ruling that it violated the newspapers’ First Amendment right to choose which content to run or not run,” Cohn said. That case involved a law enacted in 1913.

The Law & Crime article continued:

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Professor Daxton “Chip” Stewart, a media law expert who referred to the proposal as “hilariously unconstitutional,” said that DeSantis exhibited a fundamental misunderstanding of corporations’ rights.
“Basically, DeSantis seems to forget that private companies like Facebook and Twitter have First Amendment rights, too,” Stewart noted. “The government can’t force them to host speech they don’t want to, or threaten punishment like these absurd fines for refusing to give platforms to people they find intolerable. Just as a platform can remove accounts of terrorists or the KKK or a cabal that conspires to violently overthrow the government, they can remove accounts of any other individual.”

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The Electronic Frontier Foundation cited the same case. “Since Tornillo, courts have consistently applied it as binding precedent, including applying Tornillo to social media and Internet search engines, the very targets of the [Florida] Transparency in Technology Act (unless they own a theme park),” EFF General Counsel Kurt Opsahl wrote earlier this month. “Indeed, the compelled speech doctrine has even been used to strike down other attempts to counter perceived censorship of conservative speakers.”

On the Lawfare blog in March, TechFreedom Internet Policy Counsel Corbin Barthold and President Berin Szóka also pointed to the Miami Herald v. Tornillo case as an example of why the new law won’t pass constitutional muster. The Supreme Court “has repeatedly held that digital media enjoy the same First Amendment protection as traditional media,” they wrote.

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I’ve changed the title on this article; it’s about the passing of the law, but adds these informed explanations of why it will fail. As I said, its intention is just to wind people up – on both sides.
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Please preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book. It’s full of words.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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