Start Up No.1640: Russia forces Apple, Google and Telegram climbdowns, Facebook responds to WSJ stories, Amazon zaps 3,000 brands, and more


Unexpected spikes in gas prices – to be used in combined cycle gas turbines – are causing havoc for businesses. CC-licensed photo by Worklife Siemens on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Low-priced. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Alexei Navalny app vanishes from Google, Apple stores as Russian voting kicks off • The Washington Post

Craig Timberg, Robyn Dixon, Gerrit De Vynck and Reed Albergotti:

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Apple and Google removed an opposition voting app from their online stores Friday just as balloting began in Russia’s parliamentary election, bowing to pressure from President Vladimir Putin’s censorship office in a move digital rights activists blasted as Silicon Valley’s latest act of capitulation to an authoritarian government.

The app, built by associates of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was intended to help Russian voters opposed to Putin cast ballots in a way that would prevent splitting opposition support among multiple candidates and handing victory to the Putin candidate. But Roskomnadzor, the Russian censorship agency, accused Apple and Google of meddling in Russia’s political affairs by allowing voters to download the app and demanded that it be removed from their online stores. It threatened fines and possible criminal prosecutions while calling Navalny supporters “extremists.”

For weeks, the companies had resisted as Navalny’s forces publicly and privately called on them to uphold global democratic standards. But on Friday, that resistance vanished and the app disappeared from Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play store in Russia, the main sources of apps for iPhone and Android mobile devices.

For users who had already downloaded the app, new updates also appeared to have been blocked, and Navalny’s forces scrambled to get out candidate lists on alternative platforms such as YouTube, Instagram and Telegram.

Natalia Krapiva, a digital rights attorney with the Internet freedom group Access Now, said it was clear Apple and Google “took this decision under pressure. But the companies owe the Russian people an explanation.”

In a tweet directed to Apple she said, “I can’t believe I need to say this but even in Russia, voting is not criminal behaviour.”

Navalny’s press secretary, Kira Yarmysh, who recently fled the country, called the actions by Apple and Google “an outstanding act of censorship.”

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Telegram also caved in to the Russian government’s pressure. For all the promise of the internet, there are only a few chokepoints at any time. App? Force its takedown. Website? Block it, by name or DNS. VPN users? Again, ban the apps. Even Tor can be stymied by blocking access to the entrance servers, or setting up your own honeypot entrance.
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UK energy groups ask for state ‘bad bank’ to weather gas crisis • Financial Times

David Sheppard, Sylvia Pfeifer, George Parker and Nathalie Thomas:

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The UK’s largest energy suppliers are requesting a multibillion-pound emergency support package from the government to help them survive the crisis sparked by high gas prices, including the creation of a “bad bank” to absorb potentially unprofitable customers from failing rivals.

Kwasi Kwarteng, UK business and energy secretary, is holding emergency talks with regulator Ofgem on Sunday and is due to meet energy suppliers face-to-face on Monday, amid fears that dozens of smaller challenger companies could go bust in the coming weeks due to record wholesale costs of natural gas and electricity.

People familiar with the weekend talks say the largest energy suppliers are asking the government for substantial support to handle potentially millions of customers from failing companies and may require the creation of a “Northern Rock-style bad bank” to house customers they could not take on without losing money.

While no decision has yet been taken, the proposals to the government reveal the scale of support the industry believes will be required to avoid causing long-term damage to the sector should a large number of energy suppliers fail in the coming weeks.

Kwarteng is said to be examining the proposals and has accepted that significant intervention may be necessary, fearing the existing contingency plans may not be sufficient. Allies said he was looking at “Plans C, D and others”.

“We need a lot of contingency plans in place,” said one ally of the business secretary.

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The UK’s day-ahead baseload electricity prices hit £354 per megawatt hour on Sunday, compared to the 10-year average of £45. That’s 35p per kWh – more for wholesale electricity than pretty much any consumers pay at retail. Taking on customers of failed suppliers who didn’t (or couldn’t) hedge against higher prices is going to be amazingly expensive.
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Beer, fizzy drinks and meat supplies threatened by CO2 shortages, ministers warned • Politics Home

Adam Payne:

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The government is bracing itself for supplies of beer, fizzy drinks and meat to be hit by a severe shortage of CO2, with supermarkets and restaurants expected to be affected in the coming days.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was warned on Thursday that shortages of CO2, caused by the closure this week of two major fertilizer plants, would affect manufacturers across food and drink industry, PoliticsHome understands.

CO2 is used in the production of beer and fizzy drinks, and is also vital in meat processing.

The British Poultry Council’s Richard Griffiths said the gas is used in slaughterhouses, as well as the packaging and chilling of chickens, and warned that the industry was “very rapidly heading into a downward spiral towards supply chains seriously struggling.”

He told PoliticsHome: “After five to seven days we’ll start to see sigificant problems in processing birds.”

The two plants in question, owned by CF industries and located in Durham and Cheshire, are believed to account for somewhere between 40 and 60% of the country’s CO2 supplies.

Griffiths urged ministers to prioritise CO2 supplies for food production in order limit the disruption of supplies to supermarkets and hospitality businesses as much as possible.

The government may have to bail out the two plants to avert a deeper crisis, he said.

CF industries said they were forced to close them due to soaring gas prices and gave no indication of when they will resume production,

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People return to work, gas demand spikes, gas prices spike, it becomes too expensive to run fertiliser plants. We think of supply chains as, well, simple chains: a link to a link to a link. Instead they’re webs, but only sometimes as resilient as real webs.
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What the Wall Street Journal got wrong • About Facebook

Nick Clegg, former UK deputy prime minister and now prime PR for Facebook:

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At the heart of [last week’s WSJ] series is an allegation that is just plain false: that Facebook conducts research and then systematically and wilfully ignores it if the findings are inconvenient for the company. This impugns the motives and hard work of thousands of researchers, policy experts and engineers at Facebook who strive to improve the quality of our products, and to understand their wider (positive and negative) impact. It’s a claim which could only be made by cherry-picking selective quotes from individual pieces of leaked material in a way that presents complex and nuanced issues as if there is only ever one right answer. 

With any research, there will be ideas for improvement that are effective to pursue and ideas where the tradeoffs against other important considerations are worse than the proposed fix. The fact that not every idea that a researcher raises is acted upon doesn’t mean Facebook teams are not continually considering a range of different improvements. At the same time, none of these issues can be solved by technology companies alone, which is why we work in close partnership with researchers, regulators, policymakers and others.

But none of that collaborative work is helped by taking a deliberately lop-sided view of the wider facts. For example, to suggest that misinformation has somehow overwhelmed our COVID-19 vaccine response ignores the most important fact: that vaccine hesitancy among Facebook’s US users has declined by about 50% since January. The Journal article goes on to discuss at length how pro-vaccine posts are undermined by negative comments, once again burying a crucial point: that health organizations continue posting because their own measurements show how their posts on our platforms effectively promote vaccines, despite negative comments.

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As a former Facebook Civic Integrity Lead said on Twitter, the problem is precisely that: researchers inside Facebook are “ignored, or at least grossly underweighted, in decisions that have public policy or growth tradeoffs.” Perhaps if Clegg had done some work in that space he’d have learnt this.
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Leaks just exposed how toxic Facebook and Instagram are to teen girls and, well, everyone • The Guardian

Siva Vaidhyanathan:

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The Facebook researchers who warned of this problem understood what the company’s top leadership seems to ignore or deny: the problem with Facebook is Facebook. Facebook is designed to prompt engagement and reward engagement. The comments are its currency.

Posts that generate a lot of comments get promoted by the algorithms, but those comments themselves become part of the overall message of the post. Arguments break out. And the more people bicker in the comments, the more prominent the post and the comments become. That’s why you can’t argue with evil, ignorance or craziness on Facebook – it’s counterproductive. Unfortunately, posting reasonable, solid information is also, in a sense, counterproductive: that kind of information receives almost no readers because reasonable posts do not generate irrational or unfounded responses – or they attract destructive or toxic responses, and those comments morph the message as Facebook picks it up and sends it to users’ newsfeeds.

A world with Facebook is going to be crueler, stupider, and more deadly than one without Facebook
Comments matter. Along with shares and likes, comments drive “engagement” with posts and profiles. Everything at Facebook is designed to maximize engagement – even more than revenue. If the company can get its three billion users to interact with content as long and as often as possible, then revenue will take care of itself.

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Vaidhyanathan’s book is called Anti-Social Media. Neat title.
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Of course, you could also
buy Social Warming, my book dealing with even more of these topics.


Amazon closes 3,000 Chinese-brand online stores in campaign against fake reviews • South China Morning Post

Tracy Qu:

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Amazon.com said on Friday that it has closed about 3,000 online merchant accounts, backed by about 600 Chinese brands, on its popular platform, as the world’s largest e-commerce company ratchets up its crackdown on consumer review abuses.

The company’s campaign is not intended to target China or any other country, according to Cindy Tai, Amazon’s vice-president for Asia Global Selling, in an interview with state-owned broadcaster China Central Television on Friday. She also indicated that the closures did not negatively impact the overall growth of Chinese online merchants on Amazon.

Tai’s interview marked the first time that a senior Amazon executive has responded to recent actions against merchants belonging to the “made in China, sold on Amazon” community, which have borne the brunt of the platform’s recent crackdown against paid reviews and other violations.

While questionable practices like paying for positive reviews often go unchecked on Chinese e-commerce platforms, Amazon kicked off an extensive clean-up campaign in May that targeted such activities. This crackdown has affected tens of thousands of Chinese merchants, according to a report in July by the trade group Shenzhen Cross-Border E-commerce Association.

Amazon, however, has remained steadfast on its campaign to punish product review abuses as a way to protect consumers’ rights.

Although the firm has officially banned “incentivised reviews” since 2016 and has regularly taken action against such violations, the scale of its recent crackdown appears unprecedented.

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Notice how the first appearance is on Chinese TV, saying it’s not targeting China. Everything’s a potential diplomatic incident now. Can you buy submarines on Amazon?
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El Salvador botches bitcoin adoption • Foreign Policy

David Gerard:

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The problems go beyond use on the ground. Bukele is genuinely very popular, because he spends heavily on public services. Since El Salvador’s currency is the U.S. dollar, Bukele can’t print money; so he needs to borrow—or use the Bitcoin Law to skim the remittances sent from abroad. But the Bitcoin Law, and the disastrous launch of Chivo, has frightened the bond markets; El Salvador’s sovereign debt dropped almost five cents in a single day, ending Sept. 7 trading at 87.6 cents on the dollar. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are already reluctant to supply further funding because of the Bitcoin Law.

Chivo’s problems continue. To sign up for Chivo and get their $30 of bitcoin, Salvadorans ostensibly need a photo of their national ID card, a photo of themselves, their ID card number, and their date of birth. But Chivo’s identity verification functionality didn’t even check the photos—you could register with only a DUI number and a matching date of birth. Some users discovered their DUI number had already been used. Others tested the system with publicly known DUIs. Residents who hadn’t installed the app received verification codes via SMS. Salvadorans in the United States who wanted to send remittances home had trouble registering.

Traders were reluctant to accept bitcoin. “I’d rather lose the sale,” one trader told La Prensa Grafica. Others didn’t trust money they couldn’t hold in their hands. Street vendors may not even have phones. Many of their customers are illiterate. Some government offices didn’t accept bitcoin payments. Transfers from Chivo to bank accounts were not reliable. The Chivo ATMs didn’t work well—one machine had a reported three successful cash withdrawals in a day. Even transfer of bitcoins in and out of Chivo had problems. Tweets from @chivowallet gathered aggrieved responses from people.

Using Chivo is not mandatory—some are installing the Bitcoin Beach or Muun wallets. But interoperability is spotty, and transaction fees on Bitcoin Beach or Muun are not subsidized by the government.

…Bukele is pressing ahead with the Chivo project—his plans need those remittance dollars [from the conversion from dollars to a cryptocurrency that works in the Chivo wallet], and he still hopes for an influx of foreign bitcoins. Fears of criminals bringing in dirty bitcoins and exchanging them for clean dollars, draining the $150m trust that was set up as a buffer between bitcoins and dollars, have not come to pass—because Chivo doesn’t work well enough.

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What I learned from a year on Substack • Platformer

Casey Newton, who quit the Verge to go to Substack:

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here are some of the lessons I’ve learned in year one.

It’s a hits business. Platformer grows when it’s publishing good journalism — particularly journalism that takes you inside companies in crisis. The rest of the time, the business is largely static. Occasionally, a more analytical post will bring in a range of new signups. So will posts that tackle some new frontier yet to be picked up by traditional publications — this month’s story about Dom Hofmann’s blockchain project Loot was a hit, for example. Generally speaking, though, most columns don’t move the needle. In part that’s because …

Churn is real. Platformer loses 3-4% of its paid customers per month. To grow, it has to replace those customers and then find new ones. The good news is that a relatively small percentage of free subscribers ever have to convert to paid subscribers to make this a viable enterprise. But …

I converted a smaller percentage of subscribers to paid than I thought I would. Guidance I had gotten from Substack suggested I might expect 10% or so of my free subscribers to go paid. Given that 24,000 people had been reading me four days a week when I launched — some for three years — I thought that 10% would be a slam dunk. Instead, it was closer to 5%. That number has grown a bit over the past year, but it’s still well under 10.

One thing that did, help, though, was …

A Discord is a superpower that journalists can give themselves. In April I launched Sidechannel along with seven other independent journalists. (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg stopped by for an interview.) The idea was to give free subscribers a reason to upgrade, since your subscription would now come with access to a community of smart, like-minded people, as well as some of the journalists working on their behalf.

Other than the stories I mentioned above, the Discord launch was the single biggest thing I did over the past year to convert paid subscribers.

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They saw a YouTube video. Then they got Tourette’s • WIRED UK

Grace Browne:

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Although the spectrum of the symptoms of Tourette’s is wide, similar symptoms tend to crop up over and over, Müller-Vahl says. Classic tics are usually simple, short, abrupt; mainly located in the eyes or in the face or the head, such as blinking, jerking and shrugging. The syndrome typically manifests at around six years old, and much more often in boys – an average of three to four boys to one girl. What springs to mind when you picture Tourette’s – an uncontrollable urge to utter obscenities in public – is actually rare, she says. 

But if it wasn’t Tourette’s, what was it? According to Müller-Vahl, these patients were actually suffering from something called functional movement disorder, or FMD. This might present like Tourette’s, but where the latter has a neurological basis (although the root cause is not yet known, it is thought to be related to abnormalities in brain regions such as the basal ganglia), the cause of FMD is psychological. In FMD, the hardware is intact, but the software isn’t working properly, whereas with Tourette’s, the software is working just fine, but it’s the hardware that isn’t. People with FMD physically have the ability to control their bodies, but they’ve lost hold of the reins, resulting in involuntary, abnormal behaviours. 

For some patients, all their symptoms disappeared when Müller-Vahl explained that what they had wasn’t Tourette’s. For others, a course of psychotherapy improved their symptoms significantly. Still, the sheer number of patients with the exact same symptoms puzzled Müller-Vahl and her colleagues. 

Mass sociogenic illness – also known as mass psychogenic illness or historically called mass hysteria – spreads like a social virus. But instead of a perceptible viral particle, the pathogen and method of contagion is invisible. Symptoms spread by unconscious social mimicry to vulnerable people, thought to be triggered by emotional distress. (It isn’t included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, although it does bear a keen resemblance to conversion disorder, which entails the “conversion” of emotional distress into physical symptoms.)

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YouTube as mechanism for mass hysteria? The only surprise is that in this case the patients seem to have been in a comparatively small area, geographically.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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