Start Up No.1577: Google faces new EU antitrust trial, Brave gets into search, Iran halts crypto miners, the missed lockdown, and more

You might think that the sea animal capable of grabbing food from the land is a pizza pie, but in fact it’s… CC-licensed photo by Richard Ling on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Scientifically approved. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Just one day to
preorder Social Warming, my forthcoming book. After that, you’re just “buying” it.

Google faces EU antitrust probe of alleged ad-tech abuses • WSJ

Sam Schechner and Parmy Olson:


The European Union opened a formal antitrust investigation into allegations that Google abuses its leading role in the advertising-technology sector, the most wide-ranging case yet to look at that pillar of the tech giant’s business.

The European Commission, the EU’s top antitrust enforcer, said Tuesday that its investigation, which has been under way informally since at least 2019, will look at a broad array of allegedly anticompetitive business practices around the Alphabet unit’s brokering of advertisements and sharing of user data with advertisers across websites and mobile apps—one of the newest areas of antitrust scrutiny for the company.

Some of the EU’s investigation will cover similar ground to a case filed last year against Google by a group of U.S. states led by Texas. Similar areas include Google’s allegedly favoring its own ad-buying tools in the advertising auctions it runs.

But the EU probe will also cover complaints that haven’t yet been the subject of formal inquiries anywhere, including Google’s alleged exclusion of competitors from brokering ad buys on Google-owned video site YouTube.

…“Online advertising services are at the heart of how Google and publishers monetize their online services,” said Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s antitrust chief. “We are concerned that Google has made it harder for rival online advertising services to compete in the so-called ad tech stack.”

…The EU said Tuesday that it estimated the overall online display advertising business in the EU to have totaled €20bn, equivalent to $23.8bn, in 2019, with a major role for Google as an intermediary.


Antitrust. Antitrust everywhere.
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Malware hides inside Steam profile pictures: what you need to know • Make Use Of

Ankush Das:


SteamHide is a form of malware that hides within Steam profile picture’s metadata, warns security company GDATA.

Technically, the PropertyTagICCProfile value of an image is changed to encrypt and hide the malware, which normally stores information to help printers detect the colors of an image.

This value is a part of the EXIF data that exists in an image to help you identify the camera used and other related information. The profile picture or the image is not the malware itself, but it is a container for the malware.

So, if you are using Steam or have downloaded or accessed an image from Steam, this does not affect your computer. That’s because the malware is inactive until it’s decrypted by a separate malware downloader.

The image or the profile picture helps in the distribution of malware to an infected computer without getting detected by any antivirus software.

The infected computer in question must have a downloader (a malicious file downloaded via email attachments or websites) which extracts the malware from the Steam profile image, which is publicly accessible. In other words, it downloads the malware by connecting to the image hosted on Steam platform.


Quite clever: a sort of binary malware, where the individual pieces aren’t dangerous, but the combination is. And, crucially, can slip past antivirus – because it’s a form of steganography.
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When an Eel Climbs a Ramp to Eat Squid From a Clamp, That’s a Moray • The New York Times

That’s all. Just the headline. The reporter Sabrina Imbler wrote it as the “dek” (aka subheading) but the section editor Michael Roston determined it should be the headline. It deserves some sort of prize, standing alongside “Super Caley go ballistic, Celtic are atrocious” in the all-time pantheon of headlines you can sing.
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Stewardship of global collective behavior • PNAS

Elke Weber, Joseph Bak-Coleman, Carl Bergstrom and 14 others:


Here, we build on our understanding of disturbed complex systems to argue that human social dynamics cannot be expected to yield solutions to global issues or to promote human wellbeing without evidence-based policy and ethical stewardship.

The situation parallels challenges faced in conservation biology and climate science, where insufficiently regulated industries optimize profits while undermining the stability of ecological and earth systems. Such behavior created a need for urgent evidence-based policy in the absence of a complete understanding of the systems’ underlying dynamics (e.g., ecology and geosciences).

These features led Michael Soulé to describe conservation biology as the “crisis discipline” counterpoint to ecology—an analogy to the relationship between medicine and comparative physiology (20). Crisis disciplines are distinct from other areas of urgent, evidenced-based research in their need to consider the degradation of an entire complex system—without a complete description of the system’s dynamics. We feel that the study of human collective behavior must become the crisis discipline response to changes in our social dynamics.


Delightful. As Adewale Adetugbo pointed out, they’ve written the peer-reviewed scientific-language version of Social Warming. Great minds… (well, theirs are, at least.)
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Brave Search beta now available in Brave browser, offering users the first independent privacy search/browser alternative to big tech • Brave Browser


Starting today, online users have a new independent option for search which gives them unmatched privacy. Whether they are already Brave browser users, looking to expand their online privacy protection with the all-in-one, integrated Brave Search in the Brave browser, or users of other browsers looking for the best-in-breed privacy-preserving search engine, they can all use the newly released Brave Search beta that puts users first, and fully in control of their online experience. Brave Search is built on top of a completely independent index, and doesn’t track users, their searches, or their clicks.

Brave Search is available in beta release globally on all Brave browsers (desktop, Android, and iOS) as one of the search options alongside other search engines, and will become the default search in the Brave browser later this year. It is also available from any other browser at


According to Techcrunch,


the company acquired technology and developers who had previously worked on Cliqz, a European anti-tracking search-browser combo which closed down in May 2020 — building on a technology they’d started to develop, called Tailcat, to form the basis of the Brave-branded search engine.


And Techcrunch also concludes that “The market for privacy consumer tech is growing.” Which has a lot of truth to it. Brave’s search looks OK; you’d really need some sort of continual comparison to see how it matches up against DuckDuckGo.
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Facebook and Google quietly bankroll a new tech policy battle • Gizmodo

Shoshana Wodinsky:


A coalition of 13 different think tanks and advocacy groups penned an open letter to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee on Monday warning lawmakers about two major antitrust bills that lawmakers are set to vote on later this week. Instead of wrangling Big Tech, the letter says, these bills would “dramatically degrade” if not outright break the gizmos and gadgets we love using every day.

“We believe that voters want Congress to fix things that are broken—not break or ban things that they feel are working well,” the letter reads. “We strongly encourage you to reject these proposals.”

What that letter (naturally) leaves out, however, is how every org that signed this letter is, in some way, being funded by the same companies that would be subject to the provisions of the bills in question.


Notably missing from the funders is Apple. Wonder if it is going to start some lobbying now.
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Iran seizes 7,000 cryptocurrency computer miners, largest haul to date • Reuters


Iranian police have seized 7,000 computer miners at an illegal cryptocurrency farm, their largest haul to date of the energy-guzzling machines that have exacerbated power outages in Iran, state media reported on Tuesday.

In late May, Iran banned the mining of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin for nearly four months as part of efforts to reduce the incidence of power blackouts blamed by officials on surging electricity demand during the searingly hot and dry summer.

Tehran police chief General Hossein Rahimi said the 7,000 computer miners were seized in an abandoned factory in the west of the capital, the state news agency IRNA reported.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are created through a process known as mining, where powerful computers compete with each other to solve complex mathematical problems. The process is highly energy-intensive, often relying on electricity generated by fossil fuels, which are abundant in Iran.

According to blockchain analytics firm Elliptic, around 4.5% of all bitcoin mining takes place in Iran, giving it hundreds of million dollars in revenue from cryptocurrencies that can be used to lessen the impact of US sanctions.


Quite the dilemma: do the mining and the lights go out; stop the mining and you don’t get the asset that can be silently swapped for hard currency.
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Mathematicians welcome computer-assisted proof in ‘grand unification’ theory • Nature

Davide Castelvecchi:


Mathematicians have long used computers to do numerical calculations or manipulate complex formulas. In some cases, they have proved major results by making computers do massive amounts of repetitive work — the most famous being a proof in the 1970s that any map can be coloured with just four different colours, and without filling any two adjacent countries with the same colour.

But systems known as proof assistants go deeper. The user enters statements into the system to teach it the definition of a mathematical concept — an object — based on simpler objects that the machine already knows about. A statement can also just refer to known objects, and the proof assistant will answer whether the fact is ‘obviously’ true or false based on its current knowledge. If the answer is not obvious, the user has to enter more details. Proof assistants thus force the user to lay out the logic of their arguments in a rigorous way, and they fill in simpler steps that human mathematicians had consciously or unconsciously skipped.

Once researchers have done the hard work of translating a set of mathematical concepts into a proof assistant, the program generates a library of computer code that can be built on by other researchers and used to define higher-level mathematical objects. In this way, proof assistants can help to verify mathematical proofs that would otherwise be time-consuming and difficult, perhaps even practically impossible, for a human to check.

Proof assistants have long had their fans, but this is the first time that they had a major role at the cutting edge of a field, says Kevin Buzzard, a mathematician at Imperial College London who was part of a collaboration that checked Scholze and Clausen’s result. “The big remaining question was: can they handle complex mathematics?” says Buzzard. “We showed that they can.”


This is a deep topic, but illustrative of the way that computers are becoming woven into the frontiers of everything. (If you don’t like it, then obviously you’ll say that the rot started with a computer proving the four-colour theorem in 1976. Which, honestly, still feels like cheating.)
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Key epidemiological drivers and impact of interventions in the 2020 SARS-CoV-2 epidemic in England • Science Translational Medicine

Neil Ferguson, Anne Cori and 29 others:


We fitted a model of SARS-CoV-2 transmission in care homes and the community to regional surveillance data for England. Compared with other approaches, our model provides a synthesis of multiple surveillance data streams into a single coherent modelling framework allowing transmission and severity to be disentangled from features of the surveillance system. Of the control measures implemented, only national lockdown brought the reproduction number (Rteff) below 1 consistently; if introduced one week earlier it could have reduced deaths in the first wave from an estimated 48,600 to 25,600 (95% credible interval [95%CrI]: 15,900–38,400). The infection fatality ratio decreased from 1.00% (95%CrI: 0.85%–1.21%) to 0.79% (95%CrI: 0.63%–0.99%), suggesting improved clinical care.


It’s the lockdown point that’s critical: one week earlier could have saved 23,000 lives through the knock-on effects of delayed or averted infection.

Of course this will be dismissed by lockdown sceptics because Neil Ferguson is a co-author. Such is the attitude of some of the public to science.

The other key point:


The estimated cumulative proportion of the population ever infected with SARS-CoV-2 ranged from 7.6% (95% CrI: 5.4%–10.2%) in the South West to 22.3% (95% CrI: 19.4%–25.4%) in London


“Herd immunity” by infection would have killed a colossal number of people.
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Apple Watch accessory maker Wristcam raises $25m • TechCrunch

Brian Heater:


Other wearable makers have flirted with video and images on wrist-worn devices, but the feature is far from mainstream.

Industry leader Apple certainly doesn’t seem to be rushing into the idea, so Wristcam went and did it for them with the launch of a band sporting its own camera capable of shooting 4K images and 1080p video. The product launched late last year, following a successful crowdfunding campaign.

Now its makers are going a more traditional funding route, announcing a $25m raise led by Marker LLC. “We will use the funding to scale our team, Wristcam production, go to market, and R&D of our computer vision engine for wearables,” CEO Ari Roisman told TechCrunch.

Part of that funding involves effectively doubling the company’s headcount by early next year and helping deliver updates to some of the demands and concerns that have arisen since the product’s “public beta” launch in December.


Pebble started as a crowdfunder on Kickstarter; this too. I’m not sure that the market for “cameras on your wrist for when you’re making video calls” is really that big, though. Yet the company says it has sold “thousands” of them, retailing at $299 each. Fine, but expanding that to tens of thousands is the hard part.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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