Start Up No.1691: Dorsey’s indicative career, ICO to fine Clearview AI £17m+, Australia aims at trolls, Giphy sale block?, and more

The pricey exercise company Peloton may face an endless uphill battle to retain users in the face of inevitable churn. CC-licensed photo by Dana L. Brown on Flickr.

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

Jack Dorsey: the outgoing Twitter CEO with an artist’s vision • The Guardian

Dan Milmo with some background on the guy who sent the first tweet and has now stepped aside as Twitter CEO:


Dorsey’s artistic mindset was cited, pointedly, when he was removed as chief executive for the first time in 2008. According to Nick Bilton’s book Hatching Twitter, Williams said to him: “You can either be a dressmaker or the CEO of Twitter. But you can’t be both.” Dorsey would apparently intersperse his chief executive duties with breaks for hot yoga and sewing classes.

Dorsey came back as executive chairman in 2011, having set up payment company Square – today worth $100bn – in the meantime. Twitter struggled in the wake of its 2013 flotation, which made Dorsey a billionaire, and he replaced Dick Costolo as chief executive in 2015 while relinquishing the executive chairman role.

Dorsey leaves the company with 210 million daily active users and annual revenues of $3.7bn. According to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, he is worth $12.3bn, ranked 174th among the ranks of the world’s super-wealthy. He still owns 2.3% of Twitter.

But unrest had been building about Dorsey’s priorities. In 2019 Dorsey surprised staff and investors by announcing plans to move to Africa for up to six months a year. Announcing the move during a month-long trip to the continent, he tweeted, from Addis Ababa: “Sad to be leaving the continent … for now. Africa will define the future (especially the bitcoin one!). Not sure where yet, but I’ll be living here for 3-6 months mid 2020. Grateful I was able to experience a small part.”

Dorsey, who remains a cryptocurrency enthusiast, dropped the plan after coronavirus arrived. But it wouldn’t have dissuaded the activist investor firm Elliott Management from its view that Twitter was a business in need of more focus at the top.


Hard to know precisely what led him to leave, but I’d guess it was seeing a couple of projects (audio, monetisation) come to fruition. After which, he’s probably going to focus on Square and crypto.
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Twitter’s an important social network for its effects on society: it was one of the first places where people discovered they could create widespread polarisation over a topic through social media. Buy Social Warming, my latest book, and find out what it was – and more.

UK ICO issues provisional view to fine Clearview AI Inc more than £17m • ICO


The UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has today announced its provisional intent to impose a potential fine of just over £17m on Clearview AI Inc – a company that describes itself as the ‘World’s Largest Facial Network’. In addition, the ICO has issued a provisional notice to stop further processing of the personal data of people in the UK and to delete it following alleged serious breaches of the UK’s data protection laws.

Today’s announcement follows a joint investigation by the ICO and the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), which focused on Clearview AI Inc’s use of images, data scraped from the internet and the use of biometrics for facial recognition. Customers of Clearview AI Inc can also provide an image to the company to carry out biometric searches, including facial recognition searches, on their behalf to identify relevant facial image results against a database of over 10 billion images.

The images in Clearview AI Inc’s database are likely to include the data of a substantial number of people from the UK and may have been gathered without people’s knowledge from publicly available information online, including social media platforms. The ICO also understands that the service provided by Clearview AI Inc was used on a free trial basis by a number of UK law enforcement agencies, but that this trial was discontinued and Clearview AI Inc’s services are no longer being offered in the UK.


Reckoned to be the ICO’s largest fine, imposed for multiple reasons (which are listed) including “failing to have a process in place to stop the data being retained indefinitely”. Well, that’s your problem – it’s the internet. It tends to do that.
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Collapse of UK energy firms could cost each household extra £120 • The Guardian

Jillian Ambrose:


Consumers in England, Scotland and Wales could be on the hook for a total of £3.2bn to cover the costs left behind by bust gas and electricity providers, on top of paying for record gas and electricity market prices, according to analysts at Investec.

The bank warned of a “substantial” burden on households to provide a safety net for the customers of bust suppliers, including the largest to go under so far, Bulb Energy, which plunged into a special administration process last week.

“The meltdown in the supply market is likely to see substantial additional costs land on every GB household, hardly welcome when fuel poverty is an issue, inflation is an issue, and commodity costs look set to push energy bills up,” the wealth management group Investec said.

Energy bills had already climbed from an average of £1,138 a year to £1,277 a year from last month under the energy regulator’s price cap, which is used to limit price rises for 11 million homes that pay for a standard dual-fuel tariff by direct debit.

The increase, which has raised concerns among fuel poverty campaigners that hundreds of thousands of additional households will be unable to pay their bills, is expected to be followed by an even steeper price in April.


Two points of note: First, Ambrose is listed as the “energy correspondent”, which is a title I don’t think I’ve seen before. Second, the article has an embedded table of “UK energy suppliers that have gone bust in 2021”, which stretches back to January: there are 25 on the list (plus two which didn’t supply domestic customers) covering a total of 4.3 million households. The smallest had 600 customers.

More and more this looks like a failure to set up an adequate regulation regime requiring sufficiently capitalised businesses; they were relying on cashflow, but the jump in energy prices linked to the regulator-imposed price cap killed them. Who imposed the price cap? The Tory government. Who set up the Ofgem regulatory regime? Same answer. Bad regulation is indistinguishable from a failed market.
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Whistleblower Frances Haugen still believes in Silicon Valley • WIRED

Steven Levy met Haugen, as it happened, when she worked at Google and he went on a world tour with Marissa Mayer and a group including Haugen in 2007. Subsequently she was diagnosed with coeliac disease which led to a serious clot in one leg, leaving her unable to walk for a long time and requiring physical therapy. She left Google because her manager didn’t take her ailment seriously:


SL: In those jobs after Google and before Facebook, had your view of tech companies soured?

FH: I still feel very positively about most Silicon Valley tech companies. I don’t think there’s an inherent rot or something like that. I do believe that there is a need for transparency across any power, any platform that has a lot of power. And then I think we need slightly different relationships with them.

SL: By 2019 Facebook had already suffered scandals and had very public defections. Yet you joined that tainted company.

FH: I got approached by a recruiter in December of 2018. I said the only thing I would work on is civic misinformation. I think we need a lot more people working inside Facebook to fix Facebook’s problems. I strongly encourage people to work at Facebook.

SL: Hold on. Even after you unearthed all those damning documents, you’re urging people to join Facebook?

FH: People question whether you can be a person with integrity and work at Facebook. If anything, Facebook is a flat enough organization that if a lot of people came there determined to fix it, I think they would actually have a positive impact.

SL: Yet you left.

FH: I did because I couldn’t stay any longer and continue to live in Puerto Rico [where I moved for health reasons]. I still live with severe pain every day, because I was paralyzed beneath my knees. Even being back in the Bay Area right now is shockingly hard for me because it’s cold and damp here, and really painful every day that I’m here. And so I had to choose between being in a place where I was much more comfortable or working at Facebook.


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Australia to introduce new laws to force media platforms to unmask online trolls • Reuters

Melanie Burton:


Australia will introduce legislation to make social media giants provide details of users who post defamatory comments, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday.

The government has been looking at the extent of the responsibility of platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, for defamatory material published on their sites and comes after the country’s highest court ruled that publishers can be held liable for public comments on online forums.

The ruling caused some news companies like CNN to deny Australians access to [the news organisations’] Facebook pages.

“The online world should not be a wild west where bots and bigots and trolls and others are anonymously going around and can harm people,” Morrison said at a televised press briefing. “That is not what can happen in the real world, and there is no case for it to be able to be happening in the digital world.”

The new legislation will introduce a complaints mechanism, so that if somebody thinks they are being defamed, bullied or attacked on social media, they will be able to require the platform to take the material down.

If the content is not withdrawn, a court process could force a social media platform to provide details of the commenter.


I think the writing here is loose: the intro should say “users who post *allegedly* defamatory comments”. It doesn’t say proof has to be supplied before the content gets removed or identities unmasked. And it’s hardly as if the tech companies don’t take content down; it’s just they tend to use slightly different criteria.
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What is a Peloton supposed to do, exactly? • She’s A Beast: A Swole Woman’s Newsletter

Casey Johnston:


I read this piece on The Verge about the growing tension between users connected exercise device like Pelotons and the companies that make those devices. Essentially, Peloton is stumbling more that its business projections projected, because customers have not been as loyal as the company thought they would be. For one thing, users are starting to chafe at the idea that they need to subscribe to the device in order for it to be useful, and more specifically that they can’t watch anything except the closed-ecosystem, preprogrammed content on the big built-in screens.This includes Peloton, but also the newer models of NordicTrack treadmills, the Tonal strength device that has to be professional adhered to wall studs, and more. NordicTrack owners have gone to war with the company over the fact that it shut down a hack that allowed owners to watch Netflix on the device’s screen. 

The Verge piece mostly focuses on the fact that the subscription-oriented devices are a hassle: Not only are they completely rigid about their users having subscriptions to the platform, but it’s hard to transfer ownership of the bikes. The relatively delicate built-in screens also make them, hilariously to me, difficult to even move around, let alone from one owner’s house to a new owner’s house. 

But there is more here on the issue of motivation, which is a constant challenge for people trying to make a habit of exercise. The question that the hand-in-glove operation of these Peloton-type gadgets with the infotainment platform that are their workout classes actually begs is, do they ever really deliver on the dream of a set-it-and-forget-it relationship with working out, a truly independent and autonomous approach to exercise, if they also encourage and require the subscription?


A follow-on from yesterday’s 80/20 piece. Personally I think Peloton looks wildly expensive. Alternatives like Zwift are cheaper and in many ways better.
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Could this revolutionary idea pay our climate change debt and supercharge CO2 reductions? • Forbes

David Vetter:


What if we could accelerate decarbonization and the removal of carbon dioxide from the air, achieving global climate targets, all without saddling future generations with trillions of dollars of debt?

That’s a question being considered by researchers in Oxford who have developed a novel idea for dealing with greenhouse gas emissions—by treating them like financial debt.

The key to the concept: issue carbon emitters such as oil companies with debt instruments called carbon removal obligations (CROs). While these would be tradeable, such obligations would gather interest over time, effectively charging emitters for storing CO2 in the air. The payments on the debt could be used to pay for carbon dioxide removal as such technologies become available at scale.

The brainchild of PhD researcher Johannes Bednar of the Austrian International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in conjunction with the University of Oxford, the concept for carbon removal obligations offers a reversal of the current situation, in which polluters are free to emit greenhouse gases while making vague promises about decarbonizing operations and using carbon capture technologies that don’t yet exist. This means current generations are able to pass the buck of ever higher concentrations of CO2 on to future generations to deal with. The costs of reversing the damage done by today’s carbon polluters have been estimated at some $535 trillion—many times the size of the entire global economy.

CROs, on the other hand, immediately put the responsibility for carbon removal onto the emitter.


Nice idea, which would of course need everyone to implement it together, and if we’ve learnt anything, doing this with nation states is like trying to herd cats that are presently asleep in front of a steamroller.

Also, Could Forbes Stop Writing Headlines Which Invite The Answer No?
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Origin story: how Bruce Willis, Sylvester Stallone and more celebs started Planet Hollywood • Esquire

Kate Storey:


In the mid-nineties, I visited the Orlando Planet Hollywood. I was around ten. I can recall museum-cased memorabilia above my head—I don’t know from which movie. Probably something I wasn’t allowed to see. It didn’t matter. These were real, actual props from movies. And surely, I imagined, movie stars hung out at this crowded central-Florida restaurant all the time. I begged my parents for a T-shirt, which I held on to for years. At that point, Planet Hollywood merch was highly coveted. “For a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah, I managed to get Planet Hollywood to sell me one of the official wool-and-leather jackets. They weren’t for sale, so it was a huge deal,” remembers journalist and author Linda Stasi. “When we gave it to him, people were literally cheering and touching it. The jacket was so rare at the time and Planet Hollywood was so cool that it was like giving a kid a solid-gold Rolex.” A vintage Planet Hollywood leather jacket or bomber can go for as little as sixty dollars on eBay today.

Tourists still flooded into the flagship Manhattan restaurant. The wait was always at least twenty minutes. Sometimes it was a couple hours. Patrons complained, yet they waited behind the velvet rope (a nice Hollywood touch) for the chance to sit underneath one of the fifteen jackets Schwarzenegger wore in The Terminator—even if Schwarzenegger himself was almost never there. They always asked, though. “It was incredibly monotonous for us, because there was a hierarchy like there is at any other job,” says actress Natalie Zea, who worked as a hostess at the Manhattan Planet Hollywood in 1994. “The servers were superior to us, because they’re the ones who got to interact on the occasion when somebody [famous] would come in. There was no real behind-the-scenes. It was just so rote.”

On a night when there wasn’t an opening or a screening, it was like any other midlevel chain restaurant where families in cutoffs clutching bags of sixteen-dollar T-shirts paid about fifteen dollars a person for pasta with a heavy sauce. The bartender mixed up big, bright, syrupy drinks, then put them on trays to be distributed to the smoking and nonsmoking sections. The same twenty songs played over and over. “Girls on Film” by Duran Duran seemed to always be on.


Why this? Well, if you look in the right way – as Ravi (👋) did, you’ll see a strong resemblance to the origin story of a more recent phenomenon, where the promise of celebrities turning up in person and vouchsafing their wisdom attracted a lot of people; but then the celebrities went away, and so did the special people, until you reach the Yogi Berra paradox of “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too popular”. Except it’s not. (PH went bust, returned, rinse, repeat.)
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Why trying to clean up all the ocean plastic is pointless • Gizmodo

Molly Taft (for Gizmodo) speaks to Max Liboiron, associate professor at the University of Newfoundland and a scholar of plastic pollution – of which we’re putting 8bn kg into the ocean every year:


Molly Taft, Earther We’re conditioned to think cleaning up the oceans is a net good, which is why projects that have these lofty goals of taking all the trash out of the sea seem to have such a cultural hold. What’s complicated about that premise?

Max Liboiron: One of the things that’s really important to understand is that cleaning up the oceans is fundamentally different than something like cleaning up litter on the street. That’s mostly because of scale problems. The stuff we’re really familiar with at the scale of being a human does not track into the ocean because the ocean is the biggest thing in the world.

You actually have a scale problem where you cannot clean up the ocean in any way at a rate that is commensurate with the amount of plastic going into it. Microplastics are some of the smallest things in the world. They’re smaller than a grain of rice, and they’re in one of the biggest things in the world from a numbers standpoint.

When we teach pollution science, which is different than litter science, what we teach people is that it’s called a stock-and-flow problem. The best metaphor is, OK, you walk into your bathroom and your bathtub is overflowing. Do you, a) turn off the tap, or b) get a mop? I mean, eventually you’ll do both, but you better turn off that tap before you start mopping up or you will never stop mopping up and you will never catch up to the water spilling out. That’s a great model for job security but a horrible model for dealing with pollution.


Again and again, it feels as though we try to solve problems not by tackling the problem at its root, but by creating makework that enlarges the circuit around which the problem is handed. (See also: CO2 emissions.)
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UK regulator expected to block Meta’s Giphy deal • Financial Times

Kate Beioley and Javier Espinoza:


Meta has aggressively fought the watchdog’s assessment and a block is likely to be controversial, potentially triggering an appeal. In a response to the CMA’s provisional findings Meta accused the watchdog of “engaging in extraterritorial over-reach” and “sending a chilling message to start-up entrepreneurs: do not build new companies because you will not be able to sell them”.

In August Meta said: “We disagree with the CMA’s preliminary findings, which we do not believe to be supported by the evidence. As we have demonstrated, this merger is in the best interest of people and businesses in the UK — and around the world — who use Giphy and our services. We will continue to work with the CMA to address the misconception that the deal harms competition.” 

According to submissions by Meta’s lawyers, the CMA’s findings contained “fundamental errors of law and fact”. The company also criticised the regulator’s assessment of Giphy’s potential future business ventures in display advertising. It was more likely, Meta said, that Giphy would have “continued in a diminished and underfunded state”.

Meta declined to comment on the CMA’s future move beyond its earlier remarks.

The clash grew more acrimonious in October when the CMA fined Meta £50.5m for a “major breach” of an order that the company remain separate from Giphy during its investigation. The CMA accused Meta of “consciously refusing to report” information about itself and Giphy, handing down by far the largest-ever fine for such a violation.

Regulators around the world have grown increasingly concerned about letting so-called “killer acquisitions” slip through their nets, after waving through Meta’s acquisition of smaller rivals Instagram and WhatsApp.


If this happens, it would be the first acquisition by a big company to be blocked. Though Luther Lowe points out that Giphy put itself up for sale because Google downrated its results in search, preferring its own GIF search results. I know – how surprising that Google would do such an anticompetitive thing.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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