Start Up No.1572: AirBnB’s hush-money team, Lina Khan to chair FTC, US gets antitrust-y, PGP turns 30, China’s (radiation) leak, and more


The NeXTStep code that built the first web browser at Cern: now you can buy an authorised copy of this free software. CC-licensed photo by United States Mission Geneva on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. In antitrust we trust. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Contains no football:
Social Warming, my forthcoming book. Available in all formats. Except film.


Inside Airbnb’s ‘black box’ safety team: company spends millions on payouts • Bloomberg

Olivia Carville:

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That team is made up of about 100 agents in Dublin, Montreal, Singapore, and other cities. Some have emergency-services or military backgrounds. Team members have the autonomy to spend whatever it takes to make a victim feel supported, including paying for flights, accommodation, food, counseling, health costs, and sexually transmitted disease testing for rape survivors. A former agent who was at Airbnb for five years describes the approach as shooting “the money cannon.” The team has relocated guests to hotel rooms at 10 times the cost of their booking, paid for round-the-world vacations, and even signed checks for dog-counseling sessions. “We go the extra mile to ensure anyone impacted on our platform is taken care of,” Bunch says. “We don’t really worry about the brand and image component. That stuff will take care of itself as long as you do the right thing.”

Former agents recall cases where they had to counsel guests hiding in wardrobes or running from secluded cabins after being assaulted by hosts. Sometimes the guests were the perpetrators, as with an incident when one was found in bed, naked, with his host’s 7-year-old daughter. Agents have had to hire body-fluid crews to clean blood off carpets, arrange for contractors to cover bullet holes in walls, and deal with hosts who discover dismembered human remains.

The work can be so stressful that agents have access to cool-down rooms with dimmed lighting to create a soothing atmosphere for answering harrowing calls. And it can take a heavy toll. Some former agents say they suffer from vicarious trauma. On the job they tried to remember that everything that happens in life can happen in an Airbnb. That perspective was drilled into new recruits during 12-week training sessions: Just as nightclubs can’t eliminate sexual assaults and hotels can’t stop human trafficking, Airbnb can’t prevent bad actors from using its platform.

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Well, sort of, except for the quote from Chris Sacca, who turned down the chance to invest at an early stage because he could see problems were inevitable.
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Web inventor Berners-Lee to auction original code as NFT • Financial Times

Tim Bradshaw:

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Sir Tim Berners-Lee is auctioning his original source code for the web in the form of a “non-fungible token”, as digital collectibles continue to fetch millions of dollars despite the recent sell-off in cryptocurrencies.

The auction at Sotheby’s will be the first time that Berners-Lee has been able to raise money directly from one of the greatest inventions of the modern era, with the proceeds benefiting initiatives that he and his wife Rosemary support.

“The idea is somebody might like a digitally signed version of the code, a bit like plenty of people have asked for physically autographed copies of the book,” Berners-Lee said.

Auctioneers hope that the one-of-a-kind digital artefact will ignite interest in NFTs beyond their mainstay of artworks, games and sports memorabilia. Investment in NFTs has waned since March’s record-breaking $69.3m sale of Beeple’s “Everydays: The First 5000 Days”.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Berners-Lee, 66, said the auction was an “opportunity to look back . . . 30 years on from the initial code, which was very, very simple, to the state [of the web] now, which has some wonderfully simple aspects to it but also has a lot of issues of various sorts”.

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Written in NeXTStep, and he was at a NeXTStep developers’ conference ready to show the code to Steve Jobs – it was Jobs’s NeXT boxes that the code ran on – when Jobs was pulled away by an aide to catch his plane back to the US. One of those amazing meetings that didn’t happen.

Whether this will successfully goose the market for NFTs, who knows. I’d rather have a signed printout of the code. A bit 20th century, perhaps.
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Ikea and Sonos want you to hang your speakers on a wall • Gizmodo

Victoria Song:

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According to Ikea, a major problem with home speakers is that people don’t know exactly where to put them without sticking out like a sore thumb. The benefit of the picture frame form factor is that it makes use of vertical wall space, and is meant to be showcased as opposed to hidden. This tracks with the first two Symfonisk speakers [with Sonos], which launched in 2019. One doubled as a table lamp, while the other could work as a bookshelf.

“We’re making it possible to furnish with sound, rather than speakers,” said Stjepan Begic, product developer at Ikea, during the launch event.

There will be two versions that come in white or black and can be mounted or placed on the floor against a wall. It comes with a 3.5-meter cable, and the extraneous cord can be spooled in a cavity in the back. If you buy two, you can also create a daisy chain to power them with a single cable. The buttons are on the backside, and the frame itself only extends 6 cm from the wall. For connectivity, the speakers support AirPlay 2 and Wi-Fi, but not Bluetooth.

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Seems to me the big problem here is the power cord. Either you actually plaster it into the walls, which isn’t a trivial task (chiselling! Plastering/filling! Painting, possibly a whole chunk of wall!), or you just let it dangle, which is going to be unsightly. However, you can just rest it – like any other speaker – on a table or similar.

Smart of Sonos to get in with Ikea like this: a smart way to expand its business without having to build gigantic stores.
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Pandemic push: tablet shipments up 53% YoY in Q1 2021 • Counterpoint Research

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The global tablet market saw a big revival during the pandemic, emerging from a long slump. The market grew by 19% YoY in 2020 due to the increasing demand for large-screen mobile devices spurred by remote work, online education and extended stay-at-home orders. Continuing the growth trajectory, the market grew 53% YoY in Q1 2021 after reaching a five-year high in Q4 2020, according to Counterpoint Research’s latest Global Tablet Market Report. However, in QoQ terms, it came down by 22% due to the quarter being an off-season period.

…The top tablet makers seem to have benefited from less competition in the growing market. Many [smaller] tablet players had earlier downsized or closed the business, while Huawei sharply lost its share due to the US ban.

…Apple sold 33% more iPad units worldwide in 2020 than in 2019, and continued to lead the market, expanding its share to 37% in Q1 2021. Despite the off-season effect, Apple improved its performance in all major regions, particularly in Japan, where its sales continued to hit all-time highs. Senior Analyst Liz Lee said, “The basic iPad models accounted for 56% of the overall iPad shipments in Q1 2021. The iPad Air and iPad Pro series came next with 19% and 18% shares, respectively.

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The tablet market still belongs, essentially, to Apple. But the rise in demand is remarkable. Work, or leisure? I don’t think the analysts know.
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The Cicilline salvo • Stratechery

Ben Thompson:

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[Each of the four antitrust bills introduced in the US Congress] is obviously targeting the aforementioned big four consumer tech companies, but Microsoft, despite not being a target of the subcommittee, clearly falls under the definition. There may be more covered companies as well, if not now then in the near future:

• Visa has a market cap of $515bn, and processes $11 trillion in payments. Obviously the vast majority of those payments go to merchants, and the largest portion of credit card fees go to banks, but “net annual sales” is not clearly limited to a company’s actual revenue; meanwhile, the company is clearly covered under the second definition of an online platform (Mastercard has a market cap of $363bn).
• JPMorgan Chase has a market cap of $477bn and total assets of $3.7 trillion. Obviously the bank would argue it is not an “online platform” and that “net annual sales” is different than assets, but the former in particular seems like a questionable distinction.
• Walmart has a market cap of $394bn and a gross merchandise volume (GMV) of around $439bn and is estimated to have 80,000 marketplace sellers, up from 50,000 a year ago.
• PayPal has a market cap of $323bn and total payment volume of $277bn, up 39% year-over-year.
• Shopify has a market cap of $162bn and GMV of $119bn, which nearly doubled year-over-year.

At a minimum “net annual sales” needs to be more clearly defined: is it total payment volume, gross merchandise value, or company revenue? And what specifically makes something an online platform — and why do we care about the difference?

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It’s clearly something of a mess, and not very clear how it will play out. Are they going to offer “theme park” exceptions where if you have retail stores (Walmart) or offer process credit card payments (Visa, Mastercard) you’re OK? Except that would get Apple and, well, the other companies off.
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Tech antitrust pioneer Lina Khan will lead FTC, reports say • The Verge

Russell Brandom and Makena Kelly:

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“The Biden administration’s designation of Lina Khan as Chair of the Federal Trade Commission is tremendous news,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who championed breaking up Big Tech in her 2020 presidential campaign, said in a statement Tuesday. “Lina brings deep knowledge and expertise to this role and will be a fearless champion for consumers.”

The news broke during a Senate Judiciary antitrust hearing on smart home tech Tuesday, when Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) noted that Khan would act as chairwoman of the FTC, surprising many in the audience. Multiple news outlets have gone on to confirm Klobuchar’s statements. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment by The Verge.

First nominated in March, Khan will give Democrats a majority on the commission, filling a vacancy left by Republican appointee and chair Joseph Simons who resigned in January. Khan’s appointment signals an increased focus on antitrust regulation against major tech companies, which has been a focus of her legal scholarship. Khan rose to prominence after a 2017 paper, titled “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox,” arguing that new antitrust statutes were necessary to prevent anti-competitive behavior from online platforms like Amazon. More recently, Khan played a significant staff role in assembling the House Antitrust report on competition in digital markets.

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Looks like it’s antitrust season in the US.
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I saw millions compromise their Facebook accounts to fuel fake engagement • Rest of World

Sophie Zhang:

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While my work at Facebook protecting elections and civic discourse has been widely reported on, that was conducted in my spare time. My actual job and team focused on stopping the use of inauthentic accounts to create engagement through likes, comments, shares, fans, and more. Such accounts are rare in the West, but common in the Global South. 

During my time at Facebook, I saw compromised accounts functioning in droves in Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere. Most of these accounts were commandeered through autolikers: online programs which promise users automatic likes and other engagement for their posts. Signing up for the autoliker, however, requires the user to hand over account access. Then, these accounts join a bot farm, where their likes and comments are delivered to other autoliker users, or sold en masse, even while the original user maintains ownership of the account. Although motivated by money rather than politics — and far less sophisticated than government-run human troll farms — the sheer quantity of these autoliker programs can be dangerous. 

Self-compromise was a widespread problem, and possibly the largest single source of existing inauthentic activity on Facebook during my time there. While actual fake accounts can be banned, Facebook is unwilling to disable the accounts of real users who share their accounts with a bot farm. 

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Well that explains a lot.
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How software is eating the car • IEEE Spectrum

Robert Charette:

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Ten years ago, only premium cars contained 100 microprocessor-based electronic control units (ECUs) networked throughout the body of a car, executing 100 million lines of code or more. Today, high-end cars like the BMW 7-series with advanced technology like advanced driver-assist systems (ADAS) may contain 150 ECUs or more, while pick-up trucks like Ford’s F-150 top 150 million lines of code. Even low-end vehicles are quickly approaching 100 ECUs and 100 million of lines of code as more features that were once considered luxury options, such as adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking, are becoming standard.

…Vard Antinyan, a software quality expert at Volvo Cars who has written extensively about software and system complexity, explains that as of 2020, “Volvo has a superset of about 120 ECUs from which it selects to create a system architecture present within every Volvo vehicle. Altogether, they comprise a total of 100 million lines of source code.” This source code, Antinyan says, “contains 10 million conditional statements as well as 3 million functions, which are invoked some 30 million places in the source code.”

How much and what types of software resides in each ECU varies greatly, depending on, among other things, the computing capability of the ECU, the functions the ECU controls, the internal and external information and communications required to be processed and whether they are event or time triggered, along with mandated safety and other regulatory requirements. Over the past decade, more ECU software has been dedicated to ensuring operational quality, reliability, safety and security.

“The amount of software written to detect misbehavior to ensure quality and safety is increasing,” says Nico Hartmann, Vice President of ZF’s Software Solutions & Global Software Center at ZF Friedrichshafen AG, one of the world’s largest suppliers of automotive components. Where perhaps a third of an ECU’s software was dedicated to ensuring quality operations ten years ago, it is now often more than half or more, especially in safety critical systems, Hartmann states.

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PGP’s 30th Anniversary • Phil Zimmermann

Earlier this month marked the 30th anniversary of Zimmermann uploading the code to the internet:

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In 2004, Robert Morris Sr., who had retired from NSA, told me that when PGP first appeared on the scene along with its source code, the NSA was particularly worried that the source code would show a lot of people how to develop strong public key crypto software, and the skills would proliferate.

Here we are, three decades later, and strong crypto is everywhere. What was glamorous in the 1990s is now mundane. So much has changed in those decades. That’s a long time in dog years and technology years. My own work shifted to end-to-end secure telephony and text messaging. We now have ubiquitous strong crypto in our browsers, in VPNs, in e-commerce and banking apps, in IoT products, in disk encryption, in the TOR network, in cryptocurrencies. And in a resurgence of implementations of the OpenPGP protocol. It would seem impossible to put this toothpaste back in the tube.

Yet we now see a number of governments trying to do exactly that. Pushing back against end-to-end encryption. We see it in Australia, the UK, the US, and other liberal democracies. Twenty years after we all thought we won the Crypto Wars. Do we have to mobilize again? Veterans of the Crypto Wars may have trouble fitting into their old uniforms. Remember that scene in The Incredibles when Mr. Incredible tries to squeeze into his old costume? We are going to need fresh troops.

The need for protecting our right to a private conversation has never been stronger. Many democracies are sliding into populist autocracies. Ordinary citizens and grassroots political opposition groups need to protect themselves against these emerging autocracies as best as they can. If an autocracy inherits or builds a pervasive surveillance infrastructure, it becomes nearly impossible for political opposition to organize, as we can see in China. Secure communication is necessary for grassroots political opposition in those societies.

It’s not only personal freedom at stake. It’s national security. The reckless deployment of Huawei 5G infrastructure across Europe has created easy opportunities for Chinese SIGINT. End-to-end encryption products are essential for European national security, to counter a hostile SIGINT environment controlled by China. We must push back hard in policy space to preserve the right to end-to-end encryption.

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The point of weakness now isn’t getting E2EE out there; it’s the app stores for phones, which have become our primary means of communicating. (Sending encrypted email is a guaranteed way of getting a visit from the security services in a country where you’re a suspect, of course.)
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How serious is the nuclear power plant radiation leak in China? • New Scientist

Adam Vaughan:

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Do we know what’s causing the problem?

Framatome parent firm EDF, which has a 30% stake in the company that owns the plant, said yesterday that the problem appears to be an issue with the casing of one or more fuel rods. Rods contain the uranium used to create a fission reaction. In a statement, EDF said there had been an “increase in the concentration of certain noble gases in the primary circuit” in reactor number one at the power station. The primary circuit is the part of the plant that transfers heat from the reactor to water, generating steam and producing electricity. The noble gases include krypton and xenon.

Has there been a radiation leak?

Yes. New Scientist understands there has been a radiation leak at the plant. However, it is solely within the primary circuit, which is within multiple layers of containment. The radiation leak doesn’t extend beyond the circuit and no radioactive material has been detected outside the plant. “If the inert gases are in the primary coolant then it is unlikely that any radioactivity will be released outside of the reactor,” says Claire Corkhill of the University of Sheffield, UK.

How long has this been going on for?

EDF first received reports of increases in contamination in the primary circuit in October 2020. The government of Hong Kong, which is 130 kilometres from the plant, has said there was an “operational event” at the plant on 5 April, which involved the release of a “very small amount of gas”. The gas wasn’t named.

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Watching brief on this one. Anyway, finally we can all agree there has been a leak in China.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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