Start Up No.1706: news’s next problem is summaries, Facebook’s Finland failure, China’s surveillance strategy, and more


In happier times – for her at least – Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes was fêted. Now a jury is deciding whether she is a fraudster. CC-licensed photo by TechCrunch on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. In summary. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Charity time! It’s nearly Christmas, which is a good time for giving. I’d suggest all or any of:
Shelter (or equivalent in your country)
National Deaf Children’s Society (or equivalent in your country)
Wikipedia (it’s an invaluable, unique resource)
• the Internet Archive (ditto)
• any dog rescue centre (dogs are a source of joy and inspiration: watch the wonderful Lollipop and then try to deny that). Here’s Lollipop’s home.


Better paywalls won’t save us from what’s coming • Nieman Journalism Lab

Sam Guzik:

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Over the summer, researchers at Google published a paper laying out a vision for a new type of search engine. Instead of delivering users a list of links in response to their query, a natural language model would directly summarize information from multiple sources on the Internet.

That aligns with a broader shift in how users are searching for information. More than 40% of internet users around the world say that they use voice search — whether deployed in AI assistants or as a feature in browser-based search engines. That suggests that consumers are getting more comfortable interacting with their devices by speaking commands (and hearing the results).

As we contend with how natural language search interfaces will upend what we know about audience strategy, we also need to prepare for a world where users increasingly consume news on wearable devices.

The evidence tells us that these trends will continue in 2022. Users will spend more time with devices without screens. They will get information directly from AI assistants that can summarize information without sending the user to a news website. The question for us is: What are we going to do about it?

How will we fund our newsrooms if users’ browsing habits change and they don’t hit paywalls as they do today? What’s the value of news if users engage with devices that give them an always-on stream of information? How will the value of our newsgathering change if users spend more time on immersive digital platforms that record their interactions automatically?

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This partly explains why news organisations are very keen to have audio output (The Times in London has been very active, creating its own internet and digital radio station) which can then be relayed over smart speakers as needed. The shift to non-screen systems (whether voice or other) plus the automatic summarisation of content from multiple sources really creates a question of how you can create value from news.
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Facebook failing at Finnish moderation • Yle Uutiset

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A Facebook data leak has revealed that Finnish-language moderation rests with a handful of moderators, eleven people working in Berlin. While the social media giant praises the efficiency of its automated moderation tools, documents obtained by Yle show that these are of little use when it comes to small languages like Finnish.

The company’s ability to detect hate speech is not as good as Facebook has led users to believe. Moderation for languages like Finnish is often half-baked, a fact apparent in thousands of pages of leaked internal Facebook documents obtained by Yle.

These documents show that Facebook has not developed Finnish-language automated moderation for things like hate speech, violence and nudity.

Facebook has always wanted to keep the inner workings of its moderation secret. It has, for example, not wanted to say how many workers it has moderating content in different languages. It has also refused to reveal in which languages it employs automatic moderation.

The company turned down two separate requests from Yle to discuss how it carries out Finnish-language moderation.

Globally Facebook employs some 15,000 people whose job it is to trawl through published posts. These moderators, who mainly work through subcontractors, scrutinise content in 70 different languages.

When it comes to Finnish moderators, we now know there’s about ten of them working in Berlin.

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Finland’s population is more than 5.5 million. Also: moderation problems grow geometrically as the network grows linearly.
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If you want a review/recommendation of Social Warming, my latest book on the effects of Facebook and other social netowrks on society and democracy, there’s one here from John Naughton. Thanks John!


Google ending OnHub router support & Home control in 2022 • 9to5Google

Abner Li:

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Before Google Wifi was announced alongside the original Pixel phone, Google a year earlier released OnHub-branded routers from Asus and TP-Link. In late 2022, Google will end support for OnHub routers that will be seven years old at that time.

In August of 2015, Google unveiled a router manufactured by TP-Link ($199.99) running its software and featuring a “front-facing antenna reflector that acts like a satellite dish” to deliver the fastest possible speeds to everything in that direction. This was followed by an Asus model ($219.99) later that October with a physical gesture/wave over the top starting device prioritization, while OTAs added various new features. After Google Wifi launched, both often saw simultaneous updates.

Meanwhile, Google offered shells to customize the TP-Link version, including those from designer studios. It was quite wild, and could vaguely be seen as a precursor to the interchangeable bases that the first-generation Home speaker offered.

At six years old, currently, Google said “a lot has changed” in the router landscape, and that it will end support for them on December 19, 2022. This is according to emails that customers (via Droid-Life) have been receiving and a new support document.

Until that date, “your OnHub router will continue to work as normal,” but without security updates for new software features. The last combined OnHub and Google Wifi update came in October of 2019, while Google and Nest Wifi have had several OTAs since then.

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As of one year from now, the routers will produce a Wi-Fi signal, but you won’t be able to manage them through the Google Home app: no updating Wi-Fi settings, add new Wi-Fi devices, or run speed tests.

“A lot has changed” in routers? Apart from Apple getting out of the business, the competition has only got more intense.
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How China surveils the world • MIT Technology Review

Mara Hvistendahl speaks to Samantha Hoffman of the Australian Strategy Policy Institute, who has written a report on Chinese data-gathering:

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Q: What is the CCP doing with all of this data?
A: The CCP collects data in bulk and worries about what to do with it later. Even if it’s not all immediately usable, the Party anticipates better technical ability to exploit the data later on. 

Large data sets can reveal patterns and trends in human behavior, which help the CCP with intelligence and propaganda as well as surveillance. Some of that data is fed into tools such as the social credit system. Bulk data, like images and voice data, can also be used to train algorithms for facial and voice recognition. 

The CCP’s methods are not that different from what we see in the global advertising industry. But instead of trying to sell a product, the CCP is trying to exert authoritarian control. It’s using capitalism as a vehicle to access data that can help it disrupt democratic processes and create a more favorable global environment for its power. 

Q: Why is this a threat outside China?
A: Citizens of liberal democracies are rightly concerned with how tech companies abuse their data, but at least in liberal democracies there are growing restraints on how data is used. In China, where the party-state literally says that the purpose of the law is to “strengthen and improve the Party’s leadership,” technology is deployed to extend the political power of the party-state and developed according to that standard. The Party talks about its intent to shape global public opinion in order to protect and expand its own political power. At the same time, Chinese tech companies collect data in support of such efforts. Anyone living in a liberal democracy should be concerned about the ramifications this has for freedoms and privacy. 

Q: So should we all delete TikTok from our phones?
A: I will not put it on mine. TikTok is a good example of a seemingly benign app that can give the CCP a lot of useful data.

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The article is paywalled. Unfortunately if your Javascript breaks, so does the paywall.
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Exclusive: Polish opposition duo hacked with NSO spyware • Associated Press

Frank Bajak and Vanessa Gera:

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The aggressive cellphone break-ins of a high-profile lawyer representing top Polish opposition figures came in the final weeks of pivotal 2019 parliamentary elections. Two years later, a prosecutor challenging attempts by the populist right-wing government to purge the judiciary had her smartphone hacked.

In both instances, the invader was military-grade spyware from NSO Group, the Israeli hack-for-hire outfit that the US government recently blacklisted, say digital sleuths of the University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab internet watchdog.

Citizen Lab could not say who ordered the hacks and NSO does not identify its clients, beyond saying it works only with legitimate government agencies. But both victims believe Poland’s increasingly illiberal government is responsible.

A Polish state security spokesman, Stanislaw Zaryn, would neither confirm nor deny whether the government ordered the hacks or is an NSO customer.

Lawyer Roman Giertych and prosecutor Ewa Wrzosek join a list of government critics worldwide whose phones have been hacked using the company’s Pegasus product.

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Becoming harder and harder for NSO to justify its actions. Wonder if this will lead to more sanctions from other countries (the EU?) and what effect those would have. If it’s a software company, how do sanctions affect it, exactly?
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A COVID-denying kickboxing world champion just died from Covid • Vice

David Gilbert:

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Fred Sinistra, 40, was unvaccinated and would not even use the term COVID-19, his coach Osman Yigin told Belgian outlet SudInfo. Instead, he dismissed COVID-19 as “a little virus” and railed against government restrictions. 

But after the kickboxer contracted COVID-19, Yigin said he told Sinistra that if he did not admit himself to hospital, he would no longer train the former world champion. Sinistra did go to the hospital, and posted several pictures of himself on Facebook and Instagram inside an intensive care ward in Liège. 

But in a video posted on Facebook on Nov. 24, Sinistra is clearly struggling to catch his breath as he railed against the pandemic, dismissed COVID-19, and claimed that a “little virus” was not going to stop him. “I have no time to waste with lazy people,” Sinistra wrote in an accompanying caption.

On November 26,  Sinistra said he was “disgusted” that a planned fight on December 4 had been cancelled. “A warrior never abdicates, I will come back even stronger,” Sinistra wrote. Days later, he discharged himself from the hospital and returned home where he reportedly treated himself with oxygen.  

On December 13, Sinistra replied to comments on his Facebook page, writing: “Thank you all for your support. I’m home recovering, as I should. I will come back a thousand times stronger.”

Three days later Sinistra’s death was announced by his partner on his Facebook page.

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Not the sort of person you’d expect to die from Covid. But the ways this virus messes with your body is essentially impossible to predict.
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The future is not only useless, it’s expensive • Gawker

Dan Brooks:

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this is why the future, be it NFTs or Memoji or the howling existential horror of the Metaverse, looks so ugly and boring: it reflects the stunted inner lives of the finance and technology professionals who produced it. As the visual manifestation of cryptocurrency, NFT art combines the nuanced social awareness of computer programmers with the soulful whimsy of hedge fund managers. It is art for people whose imaginations have been absolutely captured by a new kind of money you can do on the computer.

It is also obviously a pyramid scheme, in which the need for a salable commodity is imperative and endlessly renewed, but the commodity itself does not matter because it is useless — not even useless the way all art is useless, because you can get the images and whatever grains of nourishment your hungry little soul might find in them for free, but useless the way a canceled stamp is useless, useless like a receipt or an envelope that has been torn open. NFTs are an occasion for commerce masquerading as art, just as so many ostensibly meaningful experiences of the 21st century turn out to be occasions to spend money masquerading as life.

That’s how they feel to me, anyway. Presumably there is someone out there right now — not [NFT hawker Sean] Lennon but one of this followers, someone who consistently refers to him as “Sean Ono Lennon, whose dad was John Lennon from the Beatles, one of the greatest bands of all time” at a speed 1.5 times faster than normal talking — who saw SkullxNFT and experienced it as some of the most beautiful and emotionally moving art in history, right up there with the Mona Lisa and Avengers: Endgame.

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Why it’s too early to get excited about Web3 • O’Reilly

Tim O’Reilly is the guy who defined “Web 2.0” (among other things), so he’s the one to ask about the whole “Web3” thing:

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During my career, we have gone through several cycles of decentralization and recentralization. The personal computer decentralized computing by providing a commodity PC architecture that anyone could build and that no one controlled. But Microsoft figured out how to recentralize the industry around a proprietary operating system. Open source software, the internet, and the World Wide Web broke the stranglehold of proprietary software with free software and open protocols, but within a few decades, Google, Amazon, and others had built huge new monopolies founded on big data.

Clayton Christensen generalized this pattern as the law of conservation of attractive profits: “When attractive profits disappear at one stage in the value chain because a product becomes modular and commoditized, the opportunity to earn attractive profits with proprietary products will usually emerge at an adjacent stage.”

Blockchain developers believe that this time they’ve found a structural answer to recentralization, but I tend to doubt it. An interesting question to ask is what the next locus for centralization and control might be. The rapid consolidation of bitcoin mining into a small number of hands by way of lower energy costs for computation indicates one kind of recentralization. There will be others.

…None of the examples in the article [in the NYT about crypto] focus on the utility of what is being created, just the possibility that they will make their investors and creators rich.

And it’s not just mainstream media that’s doing breathless reporting about the money to be made as if the creation of actual value were irrelevant. Stories from those who’ve gone down the “crypto rabbit hole” are eloquent on the subject of access to riches

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“I tend to doubt it” isn’t really what you want to hear from O’Reilly. (Though of course this will be dismissed by the believers as “not getting it”.)
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Jury in Elizabeth Holmes’s fraud trial has begun deliberations • The New York Times

Erin Griffith:

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A jury on Monday began deliberating the merits of the fraud trial against Elizabeth Holmes, the entrepreneur accused of lying to investors and patients about her blood testing start-up, Theranos.

Ms. Holmes’s trial has stretched nearly four months, with testimony from dozens of witnesses including scientists, chief executives and a four-star general. The proceedings have come to represent a defining moment for the tech industry and its culture of overly optimistic salesmanship.

The jury of eight men and four women is debating whether prosecutors have shown, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Ms. Holmes committed nine counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud while pitching Theranos to investors and patients. Her former business partner and boyfriend, Ramesh Balwani, was indicted alongside her in 2018. Both have pleaded not guilty. Mr. Balwani faces trial next year.

Each of the 11 counts carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, though they would most likely be served concurrently. Deliberations are scheduled for Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.

Ms. Holmes’s case stands out for its rarity: Few tech executives have been indicted over fraud, fewer have gone to prison and even fewer than that have been women.

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First time for everything, of course. The big question is whether the prosecution managed to pin responsibility on Holmes, who tried to deflect everything onto Balwani.
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