Start Up No.1619: Facebook offers metaverse meetings, Kabul crisis app tries to stay safe, Apple defends its hash, and more


Chip foundries are eyeing Colorado for more factories – but will the water supply be sufficient to satisfy them? CC-licensed photo by Rico S on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Got through another one. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facebook wants you to hold your next meeting in virtual reality • CNN

Rachel Metz:

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Workrooms allows up to 16 VR headset users to meet in a virtual conference room, with each of them represented by a customizable cartoon-like avatar that appears as just an upper body floating slightly above a virtual chair at a table. The app supports up to 50 participants in a single meeting, with the rest able to join as video callers who appear in a grid-like flat screen inside the virtual meeting room.

Headset-wearing meeting participants can use their actual fingers and hands to gesticulate in VR, and their avatars’ mouths appear to move in lifelike ways while they speak. A virtual whiteboard lets people share pictures or make presentations.

“The pandemic in the last 18 months has only given us greater confidence in the importance of this as a technology,” Andrew Bosworth, VP of Facebook Reality Labs, said while addressing a (virtual) room of about a dozen people on Tuesday. He said Facebook has been using the app internally for about a year.

…Headset wearers can view their real-life computer screen in VR via an accompanying desktop app. And Workrooms uses a combination of hand tracking and spatial audio — which accounts for room acoustics and makes sounds appear to come from specific directions — to allow users to interact with each other in ways that mimic real life, except for a sound cancellation feature that eliminates background noise.

But it’s clear Facebook is still working out some kinks. While Bosworth, the Facebook executive, was in the middle of describing how he sees Workrooms as a more interactive way to gather virtually with coworkers than video chat, his avatar froze mid-sentence, the pixels of its digital skin turning from flesh-toned to gray. He had been disconnected.

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It sounds a lot better than Zoom, except you have to wear the headsets. But the disconnection (or poor connection) problem, like the poor, will always be with us. Ben Thompson was quite keen on the fact that you can bring your (working avator of your) computer into the space, and make notes and browse on it. That’s pretty smart, assuming the screen is legible.

I expected to be very sceptical about this, but (if the headset comfort thing works out) it actually sounds like it could be rather useful. Show me to my seat in the metaverse!
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FTC says Facebook ‘bought and buried’ rivals in renewed antitrust fight • Reuters

Diane Bartz and Nandita Bose:

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The FTC’s high-profile case against Facebook represents one of the most significant challenges the agency has brought against a tech company in decades, and is being closely watched as Washington aims to tackle Big Tech’s extensive market power. read more

“Despite causing significant customer dissatisfaction, Facebook has enjoyed enormous profits for an extended period of time suggesting both that it has monopoly power and that its personal social networking rivals are not able to overcome entry barriers and challenge its dominance,” the amended complaint said.

In an effort to show Facebook’s dominance in personal social networking, the FTC’s complaint differentiated it from short video app TikTok and sites like Twitter, Reddit and Pinterest, which it said are not focused on connecting friends and family.

The amended complaint comes after Judge James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said in June that the FTC’s original complaint filed in December failed to provide evidence that Facebook had monopoly power in the social-networking market. read more

Beginning in 2007, Facebook invited apps to its platform to make it more attractive but realized that some could develop into competitors, and slammed the door in 2013 to any app that could become a rival but reversed itself in 2018 under pressure in Europe, the complaint said.

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They’re really going to try to define a “social network” as one that connects friends and family? I’ve made more friends via Twitter than I ever have via Facebook. Hope the judge throws this one out too, not because Facebook hasn’t acted anticompetitively, but because the FTC needs to get a workable definition of “social network” that encompasses, well, social networks.
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Facebook’s content report fails to deliver on the transparency it promises • Medium

Brian Boland is a former VP at Facebook:

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the press release references CrowdTangle as a complement to this report. I found that striking since CrowdTangle enables other people to learn from the data and make their own reports while this doesn’t enable any additional external insight.

Except maybe Ethan Zuckerman’s article which I found interesting specifically his breakdown of what’s actually in the report is interesting to say the least.

After reading through the press release and the report itself I came away believing that this entire effort is a PR stunt — similar to their earlier press release which I will get to in the future.
There have already been a number of questions raised about the report and I expect some more over the next couple of days as people dig in more. Either way we should push harder for transparency from Facebook and the other digital platforms.

As I have said elsewhere, Facebook could commit to making this public data available publicly in a searchable tool like CrowdTangle. Without those commitments and no demonstrated effort to be more transparent the solution likely needs to be a regulatory or legislative one. If that is what is needed we should move in that direction and do so quickly.

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The Zuckerman article definitely is interesting: he points out how generic much of it is, and also that Facebook seems to be including “Suggested Posts”, which people won’t actually engage with.
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“We do not feel safe”: a Kabul-based crisis alert app struggles to protect its own employees • Rest of World

Hajira Maryam:

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Ehtesab means “accountability” in Dari and Pashto, and the app, formally launched in March 2020, offers streamlined security-related information, including general security updates in Kabul to its users. With real-time, crowdsourced alerts, users across the city can track bomb blasts, roadblocks, electricity outages, or other problems in locations close to them. The app, which generates push notifications about nearby security risks, is supported by 20 employees working out of the company’s Kabul office, according to Wahedi. 

Despite the company’s single-minded focus on security, the Ehtesab team was caught off-guard by the sudden collapse of the Afghan government over the weekend. “It was inevitable that there would be a significant shift in governance … but we weren’t expecting the Taliban to come in within the first eight hours of the day,” Wahedi said.

Wahedi said her Kabul-based team is working around the clock monitoring and providing security updates across the city. But the nature of their service also makes it a target for any sort of crackdown. “We do not feel safe,” Wahedi told Rest of World. The service is currently avoiding any mention of the Taliban in its security notifications. In light of the security risks, the team is obscuring the identities of female staff members and the company’s entire staff is working remotely. Wahedi is currently out of the country.

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The interview that follows is as concerning as you’d expect. Sample:

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There are young Afghan women who are pursuing non-traditional roles such as in tech, and now, the right to safety and refuge for them is being disregarded. I have removed all evidence that there are women in my team. The morning we knew that the Taliban were near Kabul, we wiped their photos, videos, and digital information to mitigate any safety risks. The second measure we took was to make sure they were working remotely. We also limited their workload, so that they were not under added stress or being tracked.

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Everyone seems to have been surprised by how quickly the Taliban reached Kabul. Which honestly I find surprising. They were rolling up cities like they were collecting Monopoly properties on the first time round the board. The only limit was how long it took to drive between successive locations.
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Toyota succumbs to chip shortage and shuts factories • WSJ

Sean McLain:

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Japan’s largest car maker said Thursday it was cutting production in the country by 40% in September because of a shortage of semiconductors. The company declined to say whether it would shut down plants outside of Japan.

The cuts affect most of Toyota’s plants in Japan and some of its bestselling vehicles. One of Toyota’s main plants near its headquarters in Toyota City, which produces both the RAV4 sport-utility vehicle and Corolla sedan, will close from Sept. 1 to Sept. 17. The nearby Tsutsumi plant that produces the Camry and Lexus ES sedans faces a similar period of closure.

“We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience caused to our customers and suppliers,” Toyota said.

The latest problem to hit Toyota and other car makers is a resurgence in Covid-19 infections in southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia, where semiconductors are assembled into small components that control everything from engines to headlights. The spread of the highly infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus and relatively low vaccination rates have caused sharp production cuts because governments forced plants to limit operations.

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Five weeks ago Toyota beat General Motors for US sales in the second quarter, but was closemouthed on whether this was because it had beaten the chip shortage. Now we know why.

The bigger question: when and on which chips will this start affecting the consumer tech sector? Apple hinted it might affect iPhones and iPads, and if Apple is under pressure then the blast radius must be pretty big.
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Water shortages loom over future semiconductor fabs in Arizona • The Verge

Justine Calma:

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A factory or “fab” for making semiconductors needs a lot of water to operate. It’ll guzzle between 2 to 4 million gallons of water a day by some estimates, using the water to cool down equipment and clean silicon wafers. That’s about as much water as 13,698 to 27,397 Arizona residents might use in a day. Fabs are also pretty picky when it comes to water quality: they need to use “ultra-pure” water to prevent any impurities from damaging the chips.

Industries in the state used up 6% of Arizona’s water in 2019, but that could grow as chipmakers and other manufacturers move in. In March, Intel announced that it will spend $20bn to build two new semiconductor factories in Chandler, Arizona, an expansion of its existing campus there. [TSMC is also looking to build there.]

Last year, the company pledged that by 2030 it will restore and return more freshwater than it uses. It’s nearing that benchmark in Arizona, where Intel says it cleaned up and returned 95% of the freshwater it used in 2020. It has its own water treatment plant at its Ocotillo campus in Chandler that’s similar to a municipal plant. There’s also a “brine reduction facility,” a public-private partnership with the city of Chandler, that brings 2.5 million gallons of Intel’s wastewater a day back to drinking standard. Intel uses some of the treated water again, and the rest is sent to replenish groundwater sources or be used by surrounding communities.

While Intel recycles much of its water, more fabs will mean it will need to send even more water through its systems. The company says that Arizona has been “vital” to Intel’s operations for more than four decades. The state is already home to its first “mega-factory network” and its newest semiconductor fab. Intel used more than 5.2 billion gallons of water in Arizona in 2020 — roughly 20% of which was reclaimed water, according to its most recent corporate responsibility report.

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The amount of recycling is definitely impressive, though note the contrast between that 95% “returned” and 20% “reclaimed”. The former will be a lot less pure. I guess the ideal is a quasi-closed system, where you’d constantly distil the outgoing water and return it – but losses are inevitable.
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Ah, that’s where I left the plug for Social Warming, my new book about how social networks are fuelled by, and amplify, our love of outrage.


Introducing Riverside 2.0: a powerful content creation platform • Riverside

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Since our debut in 2020—a year that surely created many stories to share—we’ve had the privilege of providing a platform for people to share their narratives, from media companies like Spotify and Marvel, to the vice president of the U.S., to everyday people like you and me. 

We continue to strive to create the ultimate content creation platform, and as such, we are thrilled to announce some new features!

Ever wished you could find exact quotes from your interviewees without having to listen back to the whole recording? Or how about wanting to conduct an interview with someone who’s on-the-go with questionable wifi?

Well, we’ve heard you (through our HD recording quality of course) and are excited to make your wildest content creation dreams come true!

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Essentially a video podcast system, but the transcription part will be interesting to journalists and others. ( I haven’t tried otter.ai which is an audio transcription service, well regarded by many.) There’s a definite ramp in the number of automatic transcription services – and, in parallel, of text-to-speech services. Give it five years and human transcription just won’t be a thing.
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Apple defends its anti-child abuse imagery tech after claims of ‘hash collisions’ • Motherboard

Joseph Cox, Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai and Samantha Cole:

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[Following claims of discovery of hash collisions] Apple however told Motherboard in an email that that version analyzed by users on GitHub is a generic version, and not the one final version that will be used for iCloud Photos CSAM detection. Apple said that it also made the algorithm public.

“The NeuralHash algorithm [… is] included as part of the code of the signed operating system [and] security researchers can verify that it behaves as described,” one of Apple’s pieces of documentation reads. Apple also said that after a user passes the 30 match threshold, a second non-public algorithm that runs on Apple’s servers will check the results.

“This independent hash is chosen to reject the unlikely possibility that the match threshold was exceeded due to non-CSAM images that were adversarially perturbed to cause false NeuralHash matches against the on-device encrypted CSAM database,” the documentation reads.

“If collisions exist for this function I expect they’ll exist in the system Apple eventually activates,” Matthew Green, who teaches cryptography at Johns Hopkins University, told Motherboard in an online chat. “Of course it’s possible that they will re-spin the hash function before they deploy. But as a proof of concept this is definitely valid,” he added, referring to the research on GitHub.

Apple’s new system is not just a technical one, though. Humans will also review images once the system marks a device as suspicious after a certain threshold of offending pictures are identified. These people will verify that the images do actually contain CSAM.

“Apple actually designed this system so the hash function doesn’t need to remain secret, as the only thing you can do with ‘non-CSAM that hashes as CSAM’ is annoy Apple’s response team with some garbage images until they implement a filter to eliminate those garbage false positives in their analysis pipeline,” Nicholas Weaver, senior researcher at the International Computer Science Institute at UC Berkeley, told Motherboard in an online chat.

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Greene strikes me as always taking the extreme position (he knows that any hashing function will have collisions; the important question is how often), while Weaver offers the pragmatic one. I think I know which world we live in. If the Taliban take control of the US, then we should worry, but by then we’ll have other stuff to worry about first.
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Apple’s double agent • Motherboard

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai:

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For more than a year, an active member of a community that traded in illicitly obtained internal Apple documents and devices was also acting as an informant for the company. 

On Twitter and in Discord channels for the loosely defined Apple “internal” community that trades leaked information and stolen prototypes, he advertised leaked apps, manuals, and stolen devices for sale. But unbeknownst to other members in the community, he shared with Apple personal information of people who sold stolen iPhone prototypes from China, Apple employees who leaked information online, journalists who had relationships with leakers and sellers, and anything that he thought the company would find interesting and worth investigating.

​​Andrey Shumeyko, also known as YRH04E and JVHResearch online, decided to share his story because he felt that Apple took advantage of him and should have compensated him for providing the company this information. 

“Me coming forward is mostly me finally realizing that that relationship never took into consideration my side and me as a person,” ​​Shumeyko told Motherboard. Shumeyko shared several pieces of evidence to back up his claims, including texts and an email thread between him and an Apple email address for the company’s Global Security team. Motherboard checked that the emails are legitimate by analyzing their headers, which show Shumeyko received a reply from servers owned by Apple, according to online records.

​​Shumeyko said he established a relationship with Apple’s anti-leak team—officially called Global Security—after he alerted them of a potential phishing campaign against some Apple Store employees in 2017. Then, in mid-2020, he tried to help Apple investigate one of its worst leaks in recent memory, and became a “mole,” as he put it. 

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The problem with double agents is that they definitely have no loyalties to either side, and so will betray either for (usually financial) advantage. Here his complaint is that Apple didn’t pay him enough. So he’s clearly looking for someone who will – maybe NSO Group or similar who might want to get their hands on early releases? Sure isn’t journalists.
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OnlyFans has tons of users, but can’t find investors • Axios

Dan Primack:

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Any other company with growth like OnlyFans would be able to raise big money in a matter of minutes.

What follows is rounded data from a pitch-deck that was compiled at the end of March. The 2021 figures are based on run-rate through the end of Q1, while 2022 figures are OnlyFans projections:

Gross merchandise value (GMV): 2020: $2.2bn (fc 2021: $5.9bn, 2022: $12.5bn)

Net revenue: 2020: $375m (fc 2021: $1.2bn, 2022: $2.5bn)

Over 50% of OnlyFans revenue in March came from paid subscriptions, while more than 30% came via chats. The rest was a combination of tips/streams and paid posts for free accounts.

Free cash flow: 2020: $150 million (fc 2021: $620m, 2022: $1.2bn)

Total amount paid to creators since inception: $3.2bn. More than 300 creators earn at least $1m annually.
Around 16,000 creators earn at least $50,000 annually.

More than seven million “fans” spend on OnlyFans each month. It has even more users who only consume free content.

In short, OnlyFans has a porn problem, even though it never once mentions porn in its pitch-deck (something that multiple investors called “disingenuous.”).

Some VC funds are prohibited from investing in adult content, per limited partnership agreements. Several investors are concerned about minors creating subscription accounts, although the company says it has controls in place to prevent that.

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With free cash flow like that, one could wonder why it needs venture capital investment. A British success story, except nobody quite wants to admit it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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