Start Up No.1715: new Facebook and Google antitrust details, the undersea fibre empire, Canon’s printer DRM fail, and more


The Ladybower reservoir is overflowing again, and people are (just like you!) fascinated by the spillway patterns. CC-licensed photo by Ian Carroll on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. It’s a work meeting. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Revealed: UK government plans publicity blitz to undermine chat privacy • Rolling Stone

James Ball:

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The UK government is set to launch a multi-pronged publicity attack on end-to-end encryption, Rolling Stone has learned. One key objective: mobilizing public opinion against Facebook’s decision to encrypt its Messenger app.

The Home Office has hired the M&C Saatchi advertising agency — a spin-off of Saatchi and Saatchi, which made the “Labour Isn’t Working” election posters [in 1979], among the most famous in UK political history — to plan the campaign, using public funds.

According to documents reviewed by Rolling Stone, one the activities considered as part of the publicity offensive is a striking stunt — placing an adult and child (both actors) in a glass box, with the adult looking “knowingly” at the child as the glass fades to black. Multiple sources confirmed the campaign was due to start this month, with privacy groups already planning a counter-campaign. 

“We have engaged M&C Saatchi to bring together the many organisations who share our concerns about the impact end-to-end encryption would have on our ability to keep children safe,” a Home Office spokesperson said in a statement.

Successive Home Secretaries of different political parties have taken strong anti-encryption stances, claiming the technology — which is essential for online privacy and security — will diminish the effectiveness of UK bulk surveillance capabilities, make fighting organized crime more difficult, and hamper the ability to stop terror attacks. The American FBI has made similar arguments in recent years — claims which have been widely debunked by technologists and civil libertarians on both sides of the Atlantic.

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This is truly insane, especially the idea considered for the publicity stunt. (Possibly it’s been rejected and this leaked out as part of a “look how not-unreasonable what we’re actually doing is!”)

Enormous irony being that all MPs, especially Tories, use WhatsApp to plot their next moves. E2E encrypted, and owned by Facebook.
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Antitrust docs detail alleged plot between Facebook and Google • Gizmodo

Shoshana Wodinsky:

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When Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton first spearheaded a blockbuster multistate antitrust case against Google towards the end of 2020, it included some (heavily redacted) allegations of a secret agreement with Facebook that let the duo squash fellow competitors in the advertising space and lord over the lion’s share of digital ad spending to this day. Now, some details about that deal are finally open to the public: new court filings from the suit that were unsealed on Friday allege that the deal, dubbed “Jedi Blue,” gave Facebook an illegal leg-up in Google’s ad auctions in exchange for Facebook’s word that it would back down from its own ad plans. Further, it claims that the top executives at both companies signed off on the deal.

The tech that’s used to serve ads across the internet is byzantine in a way that can even leave people in the online ad industry scratching their heads, which means more than 240 pages in the latest leg of the Texas case can be tricky to explain concisely. In a nutshell, publishers across the web—news sites, recipe blogs, and any other site you can name—typically rely on so-called “ad exchanges” to pawn off their available ad space to advertisers across the web. Google’s ad exchange has historically been one of the biggest around, leaving websites with little option but to work with the company if they wanted to get any sort of decent ad revenue.

This all changed in 2017 with the invention of a new kind of tech called “header bidding” that would let websites bypass Google’s exchange and still make decent earnings from their ad space. Facebook quickly announced it would make itself header bidding-compatible soon after, which meant publishers could tap into Facebook’s many, many (many) advertisers in exchange for surrendering a small chunk of their ad dollars to the company. More ad dollars in Facebook’s pocket meant fewer in Google’s, which the case alleges left the latter scrambling for a way to diffuse this competitive threat.

The deal the two allegedly landed on was “Jedi Blue.”

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The details are, as she says, mindbending but the essence is simple: Google and Facebook are accused of collusion in a gigantic market in which they collectively control a majority.
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Ladybower Reservoir’s overflowing ‘plug holes’ attract photographers • BBC News

Amy Woodfield:

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Photographers have been flocking to see “plug holes” dramatically overflowing at a reservoir in the Derbyshire Peak District.

The two holes – technically known as shaft spillways – are designed to regulate water levels when Ladybower Reservoir becomes full.

The excess water flows away into the River Derwent downstream. The high water levels are most likely down to the recent wet and snowy weather in the surrounding hills.

One of the many photographers to capture the spectacle was Peaklass – an avid Instagrammer based in the Peak District. She said: “They’re running over at the moment because of the high levels in the reservoir, possibly because of the snowmelt and also the wet weather we’ve been having. They don’t do it very often.”

Photographer Lee Gibson, from Lincolnshire said: “Howden and Derwent dams are overflowing at the moment. I think they’ve had a lot of snowfall over the last couple of weeks which has slowly filled it up. Perfectly normal for this time of year.”

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“Shaft spillways”? Bah. They’re lovely pictures of overspills, well worth taking a couple of minutes for. (Thanks Steve!)
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Google, Amazon, Meta and Microsoft weave a fiber-optic web of power • WSJ

Christopher Mims:

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In less than a decade, four tech giants — Microsoft, Google parent Alphabet, Meta (formerly Facebook ) and Amazon — have become by far the dominant users of undersea-cable capacity. Before 2012, the share of the world’s undersea fiber-optic capacity being used by those companies was less than 10%. Today, that figure is about 66%.

And these four are just getting started, say analysts, submarine cable engineers and the companies themselves. In the next three years, they are on track to become primary financiers and owners of the web of undersea internet cables connecting the richest and most bandwidth-hungry countries on the shores of both the Atlantic and the Pacific, according to subsea cable analysis firm TeleGeography.

By 2024, the four are projected to collectively have an ownership stake in more than 30 long-distance undersea cables, each up to thousands of miles long, connecting every continent on the globe save Antarctica. In 2010, these companies had an ownership stake in only one such cable—the Unity cable partly owned by Google, connecting Japan and the U.S.

Traditional telecom companies have responded with suspicion and even hostility to tech companies’ increasingly rapacious demand for the world’s bandwidth. Industry analysts have raised concerns about whether we want the world’s most powerful providers of internet services and marketplaces to also own the infrastructure on which they are all delivered. This concern is understandable. Imagine if Amazon owned the roads on which it delivers packages.

But the involvement of these companies in the cable-laying industry also has driven down the cost of transmitting data across oceans for everyone, even their competitors, and helped the world increase capacity to transmit data internationally by 41% in 2020 alone, according to TeleGeography’s annual report on submarine cable infrastructure.

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Apple and Netflix notably absent from that list. Still renting Amazon and Microsoft’s capacity.
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Canon can’t get enough toner chips, so it’s telling customers how to defeat its DRM • Ars Technica

Tim De Chant:

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To enforce the use of first-party cartridges, manufacturers typically embed chips inside the consumables for the printers to “authenticate.” But when chips are in short supply, like today, manufacturers can find themselves in a bind. So Canon is now telling German customers how to defeat its printers’ warnings about third-party cartridges.

“Due to the worldwide continuing shortage of semiconductor components, Canon is currently facing challenges in procuring certain electronic components that are used in our consumables for our multifunction printers (MFP),” a Canon support website says in German. “In order to ensure a continuous and reliable supply of consumables, we have decided to supply consumables without a semiconductor component until the normal supply takes place again.”

The chip in question tells the printer when toner levels are getting low. A useful feature, certainly, but one that printer companies often use to lock out third-party cartridges—without the chip, the printer will say it doesn’t know how much ink or toner is inside the cartridge, assume it’s zero, and refuse to print.

But Canon has been having a hard time getting chips amid the shortage, so the company is telling owners of its imageRUNNER large-office printers how to defeat its own protections against cartridges that don’t have chips.

The software on these printers comes with a relatively simple way to defeat the chip checks. Depending on the model, when an error message occurs after inserting toner, users can press either “I Agree,” “Close,” or “OK.” When users press that [last] button, the world does not end. Rather, Canon says users may find that their toner cartridge doesn’t give them a low-toner warning before running empty.

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My printer (not a Canon), with its own-brand cartridges, continually insists that it’s low on ink. I’d love to be able to stop that message.
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The cost of a byte: a summary of where energy is consumed • Geek Culture

Noah Martin:

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The size of an app has wide-reaching consequences on user experience.

At first glance, you might consider slower install times, more install failures, and a higher uninstall rate. But it doesn’t stop there. Unnecessary code leads to rising compile times. Large binaries increase how much work the runtime does to lookup conformances, slowing down every aspect of an app. The more classes you have, the more work is done by dyld, slowing app launches, and increasing memory usage. Some users pay for bandwidth usage, creating a literal direct cost to download your app. The effects even reach beyond your users, to the energy usage of the Internet as it transfers app downloads.

With more and more time spent online, people have been taking an interest in the energy usage and environmental impact of the Internet. Researchers from MIT, Purdue, and Yale even demonstrated that turning off the camera during a Zoom meeting shrinks the environmental footprint by 96%. This got me thinking about the environmental footprint of app size. While an app download is small compared to live video streaming, the scale of downloads can be in the 100s of millions. As is often the case with development at scale, a single decision shipped to this wide user base gives us a big opportunity.

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The effect of a difference in size of just one megabyte on emissions is truly surprising. (Even more than that one about turning off the Zoom camera, which is a little suspicious, but the full paper lies behind an academic paywall.)
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After ruining Android messaging, Google says iMessage is too powerful • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo, following up on Google’s outrage (following from a WSJ article about how the iPhone dominates with teens, and they like iMessage):

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Google once had a functional competitor to iMessage called Google Hangouts. Circa 2015, Hangouts was a messaging powerhouse; in addition to the native Hangouts messaging, it also supported SMS and Google Voice messages. Hangouts did group video calls five years before Zoom blew up, and it had clients on Android, iOS, the web, Gmail, and every desktop OS via a Chrome extension.

As usual, though, Google lacked any kind of long-term plan or ability to commit to a single messaging strategy, and Hangouts only survived as the “everything” messenger for a single year. By 2016, Google moved on to the next shiny messaging app and left Hangouts to rot.

Even if Google could magically roll out RCS everywhere, it’s a poor standard to build a messaging platform on because it is dependent on a carrier phone bill. It’s anti-Internet and can’t natively work on webpages, PCs, smartwatches, and tablets, because those things don’t have SIM cards. The carriers designed RCS, so RCS puts your carrier bill at the center of your online identity, even when free identification methods like email exist and work on more devices. Google is just promoting carrier lock-in as a solution to Apple lock-in.

Despite Google’s complaining about iMessage, the company seems to have learned nothing from its years of messaging failure. Today, Google messaging is the worst and most fragmented it has ever been. As of press time, the company runs eight separate messaging platforms, none of which talk to each other: there is Google Messages/RCS, which is being promoted today, but there’s also Google Chat/Hangouts, Google Voice, Google Photos Messages, Google Pay Messages, Google Maps Business Messages, Google Stadia Messages, and Google Assistant Messaging. Those last couple of apps aren’t primarily messaging apps but have all ended up rolling their own siloed messaging platform because no dominant Google system exists for them to plug into.

The situation is an incredible mess, and no single Google product is as good as Hangouts was in 2015.

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This is the consequence of Google’s warring product managers: it’s all about who wins, not whether the customer wins. (Also: Pixel Envy takes apart the WSJ story.)
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NBA games in virtual reality have potential. Here’s what watching one is like • CNBC

Jabari Young:

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Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka popped up from the team bench, and before I knew it, he was blocking my view. Indiana Pacers coach Rick Carlisle was close enough for me to see his Cole Haan shoes, and I saw a Lance Stephenson 3-pointer from an angle I’d never seen before.

That’s just some of my recent experience watching an NBA game while wearing a virtual reality headset.

The National Basketball Association is offering virtual courtside seats on Meta’s $299 Oculus Quest 2 devices. The headsets were one of the most popular Christmas gifts in 2021, showing that people seem to be more willing than ever to give virtual reality a try. And businesses are trying to keep your eyeballs on their content by creating VR versions of their apps and games.

The NBA experience is free and available on Meta’s Horizon Venues platform, which is a free software download for the Oculus headset. People appear as digital avatars, sort of like cartoon versions of their real selves, and watch an NBA game from a courtside perspective. It’s not Jack Nicholson’s Los Angeles Lakers seat at Crypto.com Arena or Spike Lee’s seat at Madison Square Garden, but it almost replicates the real thing.

From a business perspective, the deal could give the NBA a new set of media rights, which is important as regional sports networks struggle.

…As the Celtics were up 23-18 in the first quarter, one avatar approached me to ask for assistance on watching. I was confused at first, as my stream was fine, but it became clear the real person behind the avatar had a bad connection or was restricted due to local blackout rules.

That prompted him to label the NBA’s metaverse experience “trash.” Moments later, I asked another avatar standing next to me what he thought of the experience.

“This is dope,” responded the avatar named “TUtley.” “They need to get this for football.”

The scenic views of Boston that appeared during game breaks were pretty impressive, too, and gave me a sense of being in the city where the game is played.

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Ehhh. It doesn’t sound that great to be honest. But I remember things like this, which come round about every 10 years or so. Maybe this time it’ll stick.
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Who is web3 really good for? • Margins

Can Duruk:

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Once you see what is going on for real in the crypto space, you realize it’s not that the [warning: irony ahead] extremely normal Twitter user and part-time venture capitalist [at a16z, aka Andreessen Horowitz] Chris Dixon was being delirious in his seminal “Why Web3 Matters” thread. It was just that he was being extremely evasive (or maybe ignorant) about why firms like his are now so interested in this space.

It’s just business. The short of it is that these firms that have brought you Web 2.0** style centralization with all its benefits and downsides, are now looking for their next big hit. And while Big Tech has already grown to a democracy-defying size while making all their early investors and employees wealthier than gods already, crypto promises a whole lot more; an ability to own and fully control entire economies. Who could (or should, as an investor) miss out on investing in new monopolies that are vertically integrated across entire economies? Imagine El Salvador, but way…worse? Dumber?

It’s probably not lost on people who have been investing in Coinbase that if you could own the on-ramp into the crypto ecosystem for the masses, that you can exploit all the advantages of being a, or even the, bottleneck. And surely, you could exploit all the benefits of economies of scale over time.

But a gold rush is going to attract a lot of people.

So while [crypto exchange] Coinbase can charge exorbitant transaction fees today on the retail side, they must know that music will stop with competitors coming in. It’s an existential necessity for them to expand into other parts of the crypto industry. They already announced its own NFT marketplace, and have a MetaMask competitor in the works as well.

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That point about “new monopolies that are vertically integrated across entire economies” made me shiver when I read it. That’s absolutely what a venture capital company would want. What it would salivate for.
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“You don’t own web3”: a Coinbase curse and how VCs sell crypto to retail

Fais Khan:

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Coinbase is like the New York Stock Exchange of crypto – a listing there is a huge deal, and usually leads to massive profits for everyone involved. But unlike the NYSE or NASDAQ, Coinbase gets to choose whatever assets they want, using their own process.

Second, [venture capital company] a16z and Coinbase’s own returns are particularly interesting, given a16z is supposedly the best investor in this space, and there’s a potential for conflict of interest. Is the game rigged?

Third, Coinbase pivoted its strategy last year to go from being cautious to listing as many coins as they can. That raises the ante even higher for them and their users.

So I started to dig in, and what I found surprised me: most coins underperformed, returns got worse over time, and VC-backed coins did worst of all.

But I was able to do one better – for the last few years, Coinbase put out the names of coins they were thinking to list, but never did. I analyzed those coins – and found they did even better than the ones that made it, and the VC-backed ones didn’t show any of the same underperformance. 

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In other words, the game is rigged.
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Why is Android 12 so buggy? It’s complicated • The Verge

Allison Johnson:

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we talked to Mishaal Rahman, former editor-in-chief of XDA Developers, who’s well known for digging into Android codebases and discovering Google’s secrets. Speaking to the Pixel 6 bugs in particular, Rahman guesses that it has a lot to do with the unusually large size of the update. “Many people have called it, myself included, the biggest OS update to Android since Android 5.0 Lollipop, and that was many years ago. There are just so many massive changes to the interface and to the feature set.”

He also suggests that Google’s commitment to issue a new Android update every year can make things worse when it’s trying to do so much, and the self-imposed one-year development cycle doesn’t leave much wiggle room in the timeline. “They started immediately after Android 11 was released to the public — and they have a hard cutoff date… After that, they just focus on fixing bugs.” Delay any longer, and they’d risk bumping into next year’s development cycle.

It’s also possible that the attempt to bring timely Android updates to non-Google devices wound up backfiring. Android phone owners have been asking for faster updates for a long time — outside of Google’s Pixel phones and pricey flagships, many devices face long waits for OS updates. Sure enough, the updates have come faster this year. Case in point: Samsung users are accustomed to waiting about three months after an Android stable release to get their finished One UI update with the new version of the OS, but this year, One UI 4.0 arrived just one and a half months after Android 12. But the way things have gone this year, many users would likely have opted for a slower, stable update rather than a fast one riddled with bugs.

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With both iOS and Android, you get occasional years when things pile on top of themselves. For iOS, it was (I think) 12, which had all sorts of problems. Yet Android shouldn’t really have this problem; it doesn’t need to be on an annual upgrade cycle, which Apple very much does to meet its self-imposed iPhone deadlines.
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The paperback of Social Warming is coming out soon. But the hardback will serve for now.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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