Start Up No.1578: Tim Cook lobbies on antitrust, John McAfee found dead, Tim Berners-Lee on his NFT, and more


How much tuna – and which species – is there in a Subway tuna sandwich? PCR testing might tell us. CC-licensed photo by Like_the_Grand_Canyon on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Hello, caller, what’s your query? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


It’s out today! Find a bookshop, or take the shortcut and order Social Warming, my just-published book. Scissor statements, polarisation, Myanmar, and much more – including suggestions for how to fix the problem.


Tech giants, fearful of proposals to curb them, blitz Washington with lobbying • The New York Times

Cecilia Kang, David McCabe and Kenneth P. Vogel:

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In the days after lawmakers introduced legislation that could break the dominance of tech companies, Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, called Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress to deliver a warning.

The antitrust bills were rushed, he said. They would crimp innovation. And they would hurt consumers by disrupting the services that power Apple’s lucrative iPhone, Mr. Cook cautioned at various points, according to five people with knowledge of the conversations.

The calls by Mr. Cook are part of a forceful and wide-ranging pushback by the tech industry since the proposals were announced this month. Executives, lobbyists, and more than a dozen think tanks and advocacy groups paid by tech companies have swarmed Capitol offices, called and emailed lawmakers and their staff members, and written letters arguing there will be dire consequences for the industry and the country if the ideas become law.

…Amazon’s top lobbyist, Brian Huseman, rarely speaks publicly about bills before there is a vote. But with the House Judiciary Committee expected to vote on the bills on Wednesday, he warned in a statement on Tuesday that the legislation “would have significant negative effects on the hundreds of thousands of American small- and medium-sized businesses that sell in our store and tens of millions of consumers who buy products from Amazon.”

Google’s senior vice president for global affairs, Kent Walker, has also made calls to lawmakers in recent days, and the company’s top lobbyist, Mark Isakowitz, has weighed in on how the bills would alter how people use the internet. “American consumers and small businesses would be shocked at how these bills would break many of their favorite services,” he said in a statement. A spokesman for Facebook, Christopher Sgro, said that antitrust laws “should promote competition and protect consumers, not punish successful American companies.”

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Obviously Pelosi’s office leaked all this; it’s part of the PR effort against the tech companies. The tech firms should be capable of better on the PR front, though possibly it’s going to happen behind closed doors, at lunches and meetings.
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Antitrust posturing • Benedict Evans

He’s been reading the US antitrust bills so you (or I) don’t have to:

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[the 2020 Congressional] report [from tech antitrust hearings] was also, to be charitable, very rushed, with great chunks of advocacy pasted in without any scrutiny, and with significant errors of fact every few pages. Perhaps the worst example of this was the claim that tech startup creation has ‘sharply declined’ in the last decade. This is an important claim, and if it was true we would obviously need broad and urgent intervention – but in fact, it was based on a data set that ended in 2011, which was both nine years out of data and just at the end of the financial crisis. People in tech agree on very little, but everyone would agree we’re in the hottest market for tech startup creation in history – any relevant data would tell you that tech startup creation has actually risen by three to four times in the last decade.

This report has now been followed by five proposed tech antitrust bills, published on Friday. Given the background, and the current US political environment, these are aggressive. However, like the report, they contain a mix of real concerns, good ideas, and some pretty questionable logic.

…Unfortunately, the ‘Ending Platform Monopolies’ law is impossibly broad. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft would be banned from doing anything on their platforms that anyone else might do, and from anything that might be a conflict of interest. They would not just be banned from favouring their own products – they’d be banned from having any products at all that they could theoretically favour.

This of course comes from a framing that ‘if you own a platform you can’t compete on it’ – Apple or Google should not have any products or features that compete with companies on their platforms. That sounds very clear – Elizabeth Warren made it a mantra. But what if I want to sell a camera app for your iPhone? OK, so Apple can’t include a camera app – or a clock, or an email app, or indeed a user interface or a file system. An Android phone has its own TCP/IP stack (in the 90s Windows did not, and you had to buy one), but other people would like to sell you that if it wasn’t there, so that’s a clear conflict of interest and has to go.

There’s a very basic misunderstanding at play here – you can’t ban a platform from having ‘any’ feature, service or product that someone else might want to make, because that describes literally every single thing that a platform does.

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It’s a hopeless mess, and the expectation is that three of the four main bill will die so a single main one can go through with bipartisan support. Sounds like they could kneecap all their companies in the process.
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Algorithm of harm: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda following coup • Global Witness

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After Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup on 1 February 2021, imprisoning the country’s democratically elected leaders, Facebook banned the armed forces from its platform. The company cited the military’s history of exceptionally severe human rights abuses and the clear risk of future military-initiated violence. But a month later, as soldiers massacred hundreds of unarmed civilians in the streets, we found that Facebook’s own page recommendation algorithm was amplifying content that violated many of its own policies on violence and misinformation.

In the lead up to the annual Armed Forces Day celebration on 27 March, the bloodiest day since the coup (see graph below), Facebook was prompting users to view and “like” pages containing posts that incited and threatened violence, pushed misinformation that could lead to physical harm, praised the military and glorified its abuses.

Offline that day, the military killed at least 100 people in 24 hours, including teenagers, with a source telling Reuters that soldiers were killing people “like birds or chickens”. A 13-year-old girl was shot dead inside her home. A 40-year-old father was burned alive on a heap of tyres. The bodies of the dead and injured were dragged away, while others were beaten on the streets.

What happens on Facebook matters everywhere, but in Myanmar that is doubly true. Almost half the country’s population is on Facebook and for many users the platform is synonymous with the internet. Mobile phones come pre-loaded with Facebook and many businesses do not have a website, only a Facebook page.

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This is so depressing. I devote a whole chapter of Social Warming to how the internet – really, just Facebook – came to Myanmar, and how many times people on the ground warned Facebook that it was having serious effects on existing ethnic tensions, in a country where people didn’t understand “Likes”. And still it goes on.
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Tim Berners-Lee defends auction of NFT representing web’s source code • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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The creator of the world wide web announced his decision to create and sell the digital asset through Sotheby’s auction house last week. In the auction, which began on Wednesday and will run for one week, collectors will have the chance to bid on a bundle of items, including the 10,000 lines of the source code to the original web browser, a digital poster created by Berners-Lee representing the code, a letter from him, and an animated video showing the code being entered.

“This is totally aligned with the values of the web,” Berners-Lee told the Guardian. “The questions I’ve got, they said: ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound like the free and open web.’ Well, wait a minute, the web is just as free and just as open as it always was. The core codes and protocols on the web are royalty free, just as they always have been. I’m not selling the web – you won’t have to start paying money to follow links.

“I’m not even selling the source code. I’m selling a picture that I made, with a Python programme that I wrote myself, of what the source code would look like if it was stuck on the wall and signed by me.

“If they felt that me selling an NFT of a poster is inappropriate, then what about me selling a book? I do things like that, which involve money, but the free and open web is still free and open. And we do still, every now and again, have to fight to keep it free and open, fight for net neutrality and so on.”

…Although this sale is the first time Berners-Lee has openly embraced the cryptocurrency community, the underlying technology has much that appeals about it, he said. Berners-Lee has settled on similar solutions in his own project, Solid, which aims to decentralise the web. “The blockchain world is pretty separate from the web, except where they connect in different places. But one of the problems with the web’s design is that it uses it uses domain names, which are at core a centralised system.

“Solid and the blockchain both attract people who want sovereign identity, sovereign power as a person.

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Scientist finds early coronavirus sequences that had been mysteriously deleted • The New York Times

Carl Zimmer:

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The new analysis, released on Tuesday, bolsters earlier suggestions that a variety of coronaviruses may have been circulating in Wuhan before the initial outbreaks linked to animal and seafood markets in December 2019.

As the Biden administration investigates the contested origins of the virus, known as SARS-CoV-2, the study neither strengthens nor discounts the hypothesis that the pathogen leaked out of a famous Wuhan lab. But it does raise questions about why original sequences were deleted, and suggests that there may be more revelations to recover from the far corners of the internet.

“This is a great piece of sleuth work for sure, and it significantly advances efforts to understand the origin of SARS-CoV-2,” said Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona who was not involved in the study.

Jesse Bloom, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center who wrote the new report, called the deletion of these sequences suspicious. It “seems likely that the sequences were deleted to obscure their existence,” he wrote in the paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed or published in a scientific journal.

Dr. Bloom and Dr. Worobey belong to an outspoken group of scientists who have called for more research into how the pandemic began. In a letter published in May, they complained that there wasn’t enough information to determine whether it was more likely that a lab leak spread the coronavirus, or that it leapt to humans from contact with an infected animal outside of a lab.

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It is very clever work – Bloom spotted that though index links were gone, the data wasn’t removed from the cloud, and pulled back a set of SARS-Cov-2 sequences from a number of early patients. Yet the “variety of coronaviruses” points, to me at least, to a greater likelihood of a zoonotic (not lab) origin. It’s as though the virus was initially like a radio trying to tune into a faint station: the genome jumps all over. Then it suddenly stabilises on the properly infectious form. So why did China get the sequences deleted? At a guess, paranoia, and its continuing desire for control.
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John McAfee: Antivirus software entrepreneur found dead in Spanish prison cell • Sky News

Tom Gillespie:

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Antivirus software entrepreneur John McAfee has been found dead in his prison cell after Spain’s National Court approved his extradition to the US, the Catalan justice department has said.

Prosecutors in the US state of Tennessee had charged the 75-year-old with evading taxes after allegedly failing to report income made from promoting cryptocurrencies while he did consultancy work.

The British-American businessman, who was born in Gloucestershire in the UK, was also charged with evading tax in relation to income from speaking engagements and selling the rights to his life story for a documentary.

In a statement obtained by Reuters news agency, the Catalan justice department said “everything points” to suicide.

Security personnel at the Brians 2 prison near Barcelona tried to revive McAfee before his death was confirmed by the jail’s medical team, a statement from the regional Catalan government said.

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He lived about four or five lives. The entrepreneur part, the wild living. His Wikipedia entry is probably sufficient obituary for now.
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How Reddit turned its millions of users into a content moderation army • TechRadar

Joel Khalili:

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When it comes to content moderation, which has become an ever more high-profile problem in recent years, Reddit opts for a different approach compared to other large social platforms.

Unlike Facebook, for example, which outsources much of the work to moderation farms, Reddit relies in large part on its communities (or subreddits) to self-police. The efforts of volunteer moderators are guided by rules defined by each individual subreddit, but also a set of values authored and enforced by Reddit itself.

The company has come under criticism for this model, though, which some have interpreted as laissez-faire and lacking in accountability. But Chris Slowe, Reddit CTO, says this is a total mischaracterization.

“It may seem like a crazy thing to say about the internet today, but humans on average are actually pretty good. If you look at Reddit at scale, people are creative, funny, collaborative and derpy – all the things that make civilization work,” he told TechRadar Pro.

“Our underlying approach is that we want communities to set their own cultures, policies and philosophical systems. To make this model function, we need to provide tools and capabilities to deal with the [antisocial] minority.”

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The suggestion that you should let users police Facebook, rather than paid-for moderators, has been made quite a few times. Facebook disagrees.
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[headline omitted so Gmail doesn’t dump this in spam] • ESPNFC

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The supporters of Young Boys Bern have not had too much to celebrate in the 19 years since their team last won the Swiss league title.

Long since eclipsed by the likes of FC Basel and Grasshoppers Zurich, the club from the Swiss capital has even got a reputation for enjoying its status as a perennial loser.

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Following yesterday’s headline about a moray eel, this story (from 2005) was offered by Matt F. I’m afraid you’ll have to go and read it yourself for the headline. But it’s worth your while.
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The big tuna sandwich mystery • The New York Times

Julia Carmel sent some tuna from Subway (which is being sued over a claim that its tuna isn’t tuna) to a lab for a PCR test:

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Finally, after more than a month of waiting, the lab results arrived.

“No amplifiable tuna DNA was present in the sample and so we obtained no amplification products from the DNA,” the email read. “Therefore, we cannot identify the species.”

The spokesman from the lab offered a bit of analysis. “There’s two conclusions,” he said. “One, it’s so heavily processed that whatever we could pull out, we couldn’t make an identification. Or we got some and there’s just nothing there that’s tuna.” (Subway declined to comment on the lab results.)
To be fair, when Inside Edition sent samples from three Subway locations in Queens out for testing earlier this year, the lab found that the specimens were, indeed, tuna.

Even the plaintiffs [suing Subway, claiming it isn’t selling tuna] have softened their original claims. In a new filing from June, their complaints centered not on whether Subway’s tuna was tuna at all, but whether it was “100% sustainably caught skipjack and yellowfin tuna.”

With all testing, there are major caveats to consider. Once tuna has been cooked, its DNA becomes denatured — meaning that the fish’s characteristic properties have likely been destroyed, making it difficult, if not impossible, to identify.

All of the people I spoke with also questioned why Subway would swap out its tuna.

“I don’t think a sandwich place would intentionally mislabel,” Mr. Rudie from Catalina Offshore Products said. “They’re buying a can of tuna that says ‘tuna.’ If there’s any fraud in this case, it happened at the cannery.”

Peter Horn, the director of the Ending Illegal Fishing Project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, agreed that it would be difficult to place blame on Subway if this were the case.

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Fight over hospital’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate ends with 153 workers out of a job • Ars Technica

Beth Mole:

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Houston Methodist hospital system had placed 178 employees on a two-week, unpaid suspension on June 7 for failing to meet the hospital system’s vaccination mandate, which it had set on April 1. The unpaid two-week suspension was essentially the employees’ last chance to get vaccinated before facing termination.

During that time, some of the workers “became compliant with the policy,” a hospital spokesperson told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday. But 153 did not and either quit during their suspension or were fired on Tuesday. Houston Methodist CEO Marc Boom had previously noted in a letter to employees that 27 of the 178 suspended workers had received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine going into the suspension.

The resignations and firings end weeks of public protest by the small group of workers who objected to the mandate, which was otherwise largely successful. According to numbers released by Boom, about 97% of the hospital’s nearly 26,000 employees are fully vaccinated, while about 2.4% received a valid exemption or were granted a deferral for pregnancy or other reasons.

Still, the minority fought back vigorously against the mandate. They staged protests outside hospital facilities, and 117 of the workers filed a lawsuit in federal court. The employees claimed that the mandate is unlawful and forced them to be “human subjects” in a clinical trial of an “unapproved drug.” Among their more startling claims, they alleged that the mandate violates the Nuremberg Code, a set of 10 ethics principles for conducting human trials written in response to Nazi atrocities. In making the claim, the hospital staff likened the vaccine requirement to horrifying medical experiments carried out in concentration camps during World War II.

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The judge’s ruling is pretty brutal (against them). Seems to me though that the staff owe a duty of care to the people in the hospital. It’s the same as the hospital demanding that they don’t juggle chainsaws on duty.
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Google faces antitrust probe in India in smart TV market • Tech In Asia

Kul Bhushan:

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The move comes after two lawyers in India filed a case against the US-based search giant last year.

According to the complainants, Google – in agreements it made with TV companies – bars these firms from developing their own operating systems (OS) based on “forked Android” code. The complainants allege that the rules set by Google restrict freedom of action for manufacturers of all smart mobile devices and TVs and not just devices on which Google’s Play Store or Android TV operating system (OS) is pre-installed.

Google, however, has denied the charges.

“The emerging smart TV sector in India is thriving due in part to Google’s free licensing model, and Android TV competes with numerous well-established TV OSs such as FireOS, Tizen, and WebOS. We are confident that our smart TV licensing practices are in compliance with all applicable competition laws,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement.

India’s smart TV market has grown exponentially in recent years. About 8 million smart TVs were sold in the country in 2019, out of which three in five smart TVs in the country run on the Android operating system, according to a Reuters report.

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Not sure why the smart TV makers wouldn’t be able to fork Android. OK, they wouldn’t have any Google services on them – just like happens in China – but they’d be able to offer what they want. And as the article says, there are plenty of competing TV OSs. But hey, it’s Antitrust Season everywhere.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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