Start Up No.1717: YouTube halts original content, Microsoft buys Blizzard, US 5G airline row grows, crypto ad boom, and more


Though China might look crowded – and 68% of its population is in cities – its population is set to shrink in the coming decades. CC-licensed photo by 11×16 Photoworks on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Also available on 5G. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


YouTube shuts down original content group • Variety

Todd Spangler:

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YouTube is getting out of the business of originals: The Google-owned video giant said it is winding down its original productions team after more than six years.

Earlier, news broke that Susanne Daniels, YouTube’s global head of original content, will leave the company in March. Going forward, YouTube will only be funding programs that are part of its Black Voices and YouTube Kids funds, chief business officer Robert Kyncl announced Tuesday.

Citing the growth of YouTube’s Partner Program for ad-revenue sharing — which now tops 2 million participants — Kyncl said “now our investments can make a greater impact on even more creators when applied towards other initiatives.”

“We will honor our commitment for already contracted shows in progress and creators who are involved with those shows should expect to hear from us directly in the coming days,” Kyncl wrote in the message posted to Twitter.

When it first started out in originals, YouTube had planned to make a run at the subscription-streaming business. But within a couple of years, it pivoted — and starting in 2018, YouTube killed off its slate of scripted TV series and movies: Several of its projects moved to other outlets: “Cobra Kai” has gone on to Netflix; “On Becoming a God In Central Florida” went to Showtime; and “Step Up” was acquired by Starz.

Instead, Daniels and her team shifted to focus on unscripted fare in three different areas: music, celebrity and creator-focused originals, and educational programming. Now YouTube is ending its efforts in those areas, as well.

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The colossal money fountain pouring through there isn’t enough to make good content happen. Although, to be fair, people like Mr Beast with their real-life recreations of Squid Game mean the internal team doesn’t have to bother. YouTube is so big that good original content happens by a sort of infinite monkeys process.
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Microsoft is buying Activision-Blizzard – if Washington lets it • Vox

Peter Kafka:

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Microsoft is buying Activision Blizzard for $69bn. For those of you who play video games or pay attention to video games — and there are a lot of of you — we don’t really need to spell out why this is a Really Big Deal.

The rest of you might want some context. Remember when Disney bought much of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox empire, and formally kicked off a wave of consolidation in Hollywood? This is like that.

Maybe bigger: The deals are roughly the same size. Microsoft’s deal values Activision at about $69bn, and Disney paid a little more than $70bn for Fox’s movie studio and other assets. But this deal — if it goes through — is both horizontal and vertical integration, pairing Microsoft’s Xbox console business, which already owns huge game franchises like Minecraft and Halo, with one of the world’s most valuable gaming companies, which owns giant titles like Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Candy Crush.

While streaming TV shows and movies occupy a ton of media attention, video games capture a ton of regular people’s attention: Microsoft says there are 3 billion gamers around the world today, and says that number will get to 4.5 billion by 2030.

And if you want to get really fanciful: If any version of the metaverse or virtual reality future we’ve been hearing about for the past couple years comes to pass, it will almost certainly be grounded in games. Maybe Future You won’t want to strap on face goggles throughout your day. But putting on a device to shoot at virtual strangers is less of a stretch.

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That “3 billion gamers” number is hooey. It requires pretty much every smartphone user to be playing (and paying?) for them, and that makes “gamer” such a loose definition (Wordle players?) that it rolls off a spreadsheet.

GamePass prices will probably go up in the short term. And as Kafka points out, Microsoft’s probably pushing the (not happening yet, probably not for a while) metaverse angle because that would make it seem like a competitor to Facebook, and doesn’t everyone love competition?
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Chemical pollution has passed safe limit for humanity, say scientists • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:

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The cocktail of chemical pollution that pervades the planet now threatens the stability of global ecosystems upon which humanity depends, scientists have said.

Plastics are of particularly high concern, they said, along with 350,000 synthetic chemicals including pesticides, industrial compounds and antibiotics. Plastic pollution is now found from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans, and some toxic chemicals, such as PCBs, are long-lasting and widespread.

The study concludes that chemical pollution has crossed a “planetary boundary”, the point at which human-made changes to the Earth push it outside the stable environment of the last 10,000 years.

Chemical pollution threatens Earth’s systems by damaging the biological and physical processes that underpin all life. For example, pesticides wipe out many non-target insects, which are fundamental to all ecosystems and, therefore, to the provision of clean air, water and food.

“There has been a fiftyfold increase in the production of chemicals since 1950 and this is projected to triple again by 2050,” said Patricia Villarrubia-Gómez, a PhD candidate and research assistant at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) who was part of the study team. “The pace that societies are producing and releasing new chemicals into the environment is not consistent with staying within a safe operating space for humanity.”

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#dontlookup
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China’s population may start to shrink this year, new birth data suggest • Science

Dennis Normile:

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After many decades of growth, China’s population could begin to shrink this year, suggest data released yesterday by China’s National Bureau of Statistics. The numbers show that in 2021, China’s birth rate fell for the fifth year in a row, to a record low of 7.52 per 1000 people. Based on that number, demographers estimate the country’s total fertility rate—the number of children a person will bear over their lifetime—is down to about 1.15, well below the replacement rate of 2.1 and one of the lowest in the world.

Young couples are deciding against having more children, “despite all the new initiatives and propaganda to promote childbearing,” says Yong Cai, a demographer at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “China’s population decline will be rapid,” he predicts.

The shift from growth to decline has happened startlingly fast. Projections made just a few years ago suggested China’s population would expand until around 2027. Last year, when it announced results from the 2020 census, the statistics bureau still pegged the total fertility rate at 1.3.

China’s government has long promoted population control. But it has reversed course because of worries that a shrinking and aging population will strain pension systems and social services and lead to economic and geopolitical decline. The country ended its notorious one-child policy in 2016, allowing all couples to have two children. In May 2021, the limit went up to three children. Some local governments have started to offer monthly cash subsidies to couples for second and third children.

Experts say it is too little, too late.

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Wonder if/when India will overtake it as the most populous country. And the reality too is that the workforce won’t grow, even if it all takes off, until 2036 at the earliest.
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AT&T and Verizon limit 5G service near US airports after airlines’ outcry • Financial Times

Steff Chavez and Anna Gross:

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AT&T and Verizon have agreed to scale back or postpone the launch of 5G wireless service near airport runways after an eleventh-hour outcry from the aviation industry.

Airlines had warned that the debut of high-speed 5G technology, scheduled for Wednesday, could interfere with aircraft safety and navigation systems. United Airlines and American Airlines said earlier on Tuesday that they were preparing to cancel flights if the rollout went ahead.

AT&T said it had voluntarily agreed to “temporarily defer turning on” a limited number of 5G-enabled towers around “certain airport runways” as it provides more information to airlines and regulators, but added it was launching its advanced 5G services elsewhere as planned.

Verizon also said it would launch its 5G “ultra wideband” network on Wednesday, but had voluntarily decided to limit it “around airports”, without specifying the number of airports.

Both telecoms companies expressed frustration with US regulators after repeatedly delaying their planned launch of 5G — first from December 5 to January 5 and then for two more weeks, to Wednesday, at the request of regulators.

“The Federal Aviation Administration and our nation’s airlines have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 other countries,” Verizon said.

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The reason why other countries have got it operational is that they’re using different frequencies, and lower power. (Some international airlines said they’d cancel some flights into the US.)

Makes for quite the collision of big-money interests in the US, and has inevitably dragged the federal government in to try to mediate. The issue of altimeter problems – which this is – hasn’t been mentioned before, though concerns have been raised about weather forecasting and GPS. (Thanks Paul G.)
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The FAA’s 5G bungling does not instill confidence • The Washington Post

David von Drehle:

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At issue is a sweet spot in the radio spectrum between 3.7 and 4.4 gigahertz (GHz). Here, the wavelengths are long enough to travel a good distance — important for cellular coverage — but short enough to hold a lot of data. The space from 3.7 to 4.2 GHz was authorized for 5G, while the band from 4.2 to 4.4 GHz carries messages to aircraft altimeters. The FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] is worried about interference where the bands meet.

Wheeler notes that Boeing, battered by safety issues, proposed a protective margin from 4.1 to 4.2 GHz where 5G would not venture. The FCC, which regulates the wireless spectrum, agreed, then doubled the margin, limiting 5G signals to wavelengths below 4.0 GHz.

The FAA and its aviation constituents say they remain worried that some older altimeters might yet be vulnerable to interference. Instead of acting during the long 5G rollout to improve safety standards for avionics, the agency has chosen this flurry of late-stage hand-wringing. Wheeler counsels: “Clear heads are needed to separate what is only hypothetical possibility based on worst-case assumptions” — the FAA’s Chicken Little scenario — “from what is highly probable based on real-world use.”

More is at stake than the speed with which sports fans can gamble on their phones. High-speed wireless is a major economic and technical battlefield on which national security depends. The United States already lags China in adoption of 5G communications.

Beyond that, the FAA’s foot-dragging raises a red flag over the agency’s competence. Demand for space on the airwaves has been rising steeply for generations. But now we learn that countless aircraft may be flying around with crucial safety equipment vulnerable to interference — and that the number of vulnerable aircraft is unknown because, Wheeler writes, the agency has no set standard for altimeter security.

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Neither the FAA nor the CDC have covered themselves in glory in the past couple of years.
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Israel police uses NSO’s Pegasus to spy on citizens • Calcalist Tech

Tomer Ganon:

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One of the problematic instances that has been uncovered is the tracking of activists in the protests against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while he was still in office. The protests against Netanyahu gathered momentum during 2020 as the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country and the first lockdowns were imposed on Israelis. With the level of anxiety in the Netanyahu government continually rising, efforts were made to reduce the magnitude of the protests through the use of judicial and procedural tools, with police increasing the force and violence against protesters, the leaders in particular.

But the heads of the political protests had no idea that Israel police had remotely planted NSO’s spyware in their phones, taking over their devices and having the ability to listen to all their calls and read all their messages. The order to conduct the surveillance on Israeli citizens that aren’t criminals or suspects with NSO’s spyware was given by high-ranking police officers without a court warrant or the supervision of a judge. Those who received the order and executed it were members of the police’s special operations cyber unit in SIGINT, whose entire activity is confidential.

The political protesters weren’t the only ones the police were tracking through NSO. The Israeli company’s spyware, which has earned a notorious reputation over recent years after being used by oppressive regimes to spy on dissidents, was used, for example, by the police’s SIGINT unit in order to search for evidence of bribery in the cellphone of serving mayor, during the stage in which the investigation was still confidential. The remote hacking delivered in this instance evidence of criminal offenses. This evidence was later whitewashed as intelligence and was followed by an open investigation. At this stage, the evidence already known to police was legally seized with a search warrant provided by a judge.

However, NSO’s spyware was also used by police for phishing purposes: attempts to phish for information in an intelligence target’s phone without knowing in advance that the target committed any crime. Pegasus was installed in a cellphone of a person close to a senior politician in order to try and find evidence relating to a corruption investigation.

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If the technology for abuse exists, it will be abused. Pegasus is getting to be like Downing St parties – it would be quicker to tell us the times when it was done within the rules.
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Porsche’s electric Taycan outsells 911 in record 2021 • CAR Magazine

Phil McNamara:

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Porsche’s pure electric Taycan outsold the 911 sports car in 2021, as the German brand posted the greatest sales in its history.

The company delivered 41,296 Taycans worldwide, compared with 38,464 deliveries of the 59-year-old icon. The Taycan didn’t outsell the 911 because it had a bad year – that 911 total was a new high for the nameplate – but it appears more customers wanted the electric sports car.

The Taycan benefited from entry-level rear-wheel drive versions going on sale, and the first full year of the Cross Turismo bodystyle, whereas the 911 is nearing the end of the first 992 wave (pre-facelift). But is this a sliding doors moment regardless? 

It certainly looks that way. The Taycan is bringing new customers to the Porsche brand, as Porsche CEO Oliver Blume told us in 2020. ‘They are first movers, very interested in sustainability, innovation and digitalisation,’ says Blume. They are also younger than Porsche’s traditional customer base.

It’ll be fascinating to see if the Taycan continues its lead over the 911 in 2022, or whether it dips back as fresh rivals from Tesla, Mercedes, Lotus and BMW sway tech-loving EV adopters.

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Maybe they’ve discovered that an electric car will accelerate faster than a petrol-engined one.
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Pix breaks ground in Brazil, shakes up payments market • S&P Global Market Intelligence

David Feliba:

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Brazil, notorious for its bureaucracy and complexities, has created one of the most efficient payments systems in Latin America, with blowout numbers proving its success.

Pix, rolled out by the Banco Central do Brasil in Nov. 2020, was built for efficiency and financial inclusion. It now has 107.5 million registered accounts, more than half of the country’s population. One year after implementation, more than half a trillion Brazilian reais were transacted through the low-cost payments system last month. According to central bank data, Pix payments volume is already equivalent to 80% of debit and credit card transactions.

“Pix has set a new standard in Brazil,” Julian Colombo, CEO of banking technology firm N5, said in an interview. “It has already achieved critical mass.”

Pix continues adding new features, making older payment forms obsolete. Traditional banks may be losing revenue as a result, but the system has replaced cash, bringing more people into the digital realm.

“Except for very particular transactions, market penetration tends to 99% on all individual transfers,” he added. However, the rollout has not been without hiccups, including kidnapping.

This month, the central bank announced two new Pix features that will allow cash withdrawals from stores. Coming in 2022 are Pix Offline — no internet required — and Pix NFC Payments, allowing payment by approximation. That is good news for the millions of Brazilians who work informally, like those selling food on the beach or even street musicians.

…According to the central bank, some 30,000 Pix transactions are carried out every minute.

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Hasn’t needed to draw apes, or claim that it’s breaking clear of fiat, or decentralised (it very much isn’t). But it’s a success. (Via Benedict Evans’s newsletter.)

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Cryptocurrency ads reach record levels on London transport • The Guardian

Rob Davies:

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Cryptocurrency firms bombarded Londoners with a record number of adverts on public transport during 2021, fuelling calls for a ban to prevent people being lured into risky investments.

The surge in adverts for crypto assets, which are unregulated in the UK, has prompted concerns about the risk of addiction and financial harm, particularly given the wild volatility in the price of digital currencies such as bitcoin, which reached record highs last year before crashing again.

It also emerged that Transport for London (TfL) has not implemented a ban on gambling adverts promised by the mayor, Sadiq Khan, allowing the industry to step up its marketing activity in the meantime.

Records obtained by the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act show that TfL services displayed 39,560 crypto adverts from 13 firms in the six months between April and September 2021.

Major advertisers include the trading platform eToro, floki – “a “meme coin” named after Elon Musk’s dog – Crypto.com and Luno Money, whose campaign telling people it was “time to buy” bitcoin was banned by the advertising regulator for being “irresponsible”.

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An official estimate reckoned that 2.4 million Britons have “investments” (read as: crossed fingers) in cryptocurrencies, though that number is going up all the time, principally in the 18-24 age group.

A financial analyst on the radio this afternoon pointed out there is no way to value such …things in the longer term, and added that on that basis “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an honest cryptocurrency advert.”
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?
• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?
• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?
• What can we do about it?
• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?

Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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