Start Up No.1740: EU eyes search “spam ads”, NFTs are MLM, Wikipedia and the high five, Metaverse moderation hell, and more

There turns out to be a surprising use for tracking the mains frequency in your home. Just hope you never have to call on it. CC-licensed photo by Richard Ash on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not featured in Wordle. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

New EU antitrust frontier emerges for Microsoft and Google: spam ads • POLITICO

Samuel Stolton:


A new claim that Microsoft and Google are gaming the online advertising market to the detriment of smaller rivals threatens to set up a new antitrust clash in Europe, according to previously unseen data.

The two U.S. giants appear to be flooding smaller search engine partners with spam ads and keeping some of the most valuable ads for themselves, according to data reviewed by POLITICO, in a move that draws parallels with the infamous €2.4bn Google Shopping case.

While EU competition chief Margrethe Vestager’s 2015 offensive against Google’s abuses in the search market got the backing of the EU General Court in November, there are some who say that blind spots in the case have allowed for certain violations to continue — illustrated by Swedish price-comparison site PriceRunner’s decision earlier this month to sue Google for €2.1 billion in damages.

And now, according to the same data, both Google and its closest rival in the search engine space, Microsoft, are siphoning off so-called spam ads to smaller search engines that use their search results, as well as limiting the quantity of higher-value ads that appear on these partner search engines.

Spam ads are regarded as those that have little relevance to the original search, direct users to less reputable online sources and generate little value for the search engine. In the long term, such ads may turn users away from using alternative search engines like Qwant, Ecosia and DuckDuckGo, and drive them back to the likes of Bing and Google, thereby negatively affecting the smaller players’ bottom lines.

The data, compiled by researchers working in the adtech space who wish to remain anonymous for fear of damaging commercial relations between Microsoft or Google and smaller search engines, indicates that the two internet giants fob off low-value and irrelevant ads to their downstream syndication partners — smaller search engines that rely on both gatekeepers’ huge web page indexes.


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NFTs, cryptocurrencies and web3 are multilevel marketing schemes for a new generation • WSJ

Christopher Mims:


In a recent ad for cryptocurrency exchange FTX, Tom Brady asks seemingly everyone in his contact list, “You in?” As in, are you going to join him in buying some crypto, and not, presumably, in being a football star married to a supermodel. The pitch is straightforward celebrity-endorsement fare, designed to capitalize on the FOMO that is the standard psychological tactic of those who are already invested in cryptocurrencies and related technologies, and who would like the rest of us to come aboard. Mr. Brady has an equity stake in FTX.

A “You in?”-style pitch is also typical of successful multilevel marketing companies. Both make a virtue of the fact that our getting “in” will obviously enrich those urging us to do so, by driving up the value of their own holdings or network. And then, hey, the same could be true for us!

It’s a siren song as old as the promise of attaining financial freedom by selling herbal supplements, cosmetics or leggings from the comfort of your home, enhanced and refined by the ways in which modern communications systems can rapidly elevate ideas and movements from the fringe to the center of national and global conversation.

But how does owning or trading crypto, which is after all just data—infinitely reproducible, supposedly nearly free thanks to the internet—make one rich? Or for that matter, owning or trading other digital assets like NFTs (or “nonfungible tokens”) that have become all the rage among celebrity art collectors? The straightforward premise: by using the blockchain—a type of public database that anyone can access and everyone can (supposedly) trust—it is possible to create a chunk of data, known as a token, that is unique in the world, and cannot be reproduced. In other words, it is possible to make a digital object, be it a piece of art or a crypto coin, scarce.


He’s absolutely right. Usually MLM schemes thrive in times of hardship, but the NFT MLM has grown up in a time of plenty because there was so much money sloshing about for the past few years that grifters were looking for some way to siphon it in their direction. Hmm, what if you made something that isn’t rare, “rare”? Don’t enquire too much about the quote marks, just pay me.
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Futures spun and stolen in the metaverse • Noema

Tim Maughan:


Like every young kid with an IG account he’d tried minting a few of the images as NFTs. None had sold. Well, not until yesterday, when I got some bots to buy a few. But like every artist that got in after the initial goldrush, Fragileman had realized there was no real money in tokenizing your work when you were starting out. The days of buying any tokenized art you saw just for the novelty or some mystical potentials were long gone; now only established artists, artists with connections and influence and a recognizable brand, made serious money selling their work. 

No, as a new artist there was little point wasting money and carbon on having your work minted when you could tokenize something far more valuable: yourself. Pay an exchange to mint you into an NFT, split it into thousands of shards, and then put those up for sale. Suddenly you were there, legitimately part of the real art world: a line on a chart. 

The artist as tradable financial product, your artistic value ranked by the automated exchanges, subreddit day traders, stonks hustlers, hedge fund analysts and high-frequency trading algorithms. They — the critics, the holdouts, the no-coiner ludds — they keep telling us we’d finally destroyed art, reduced it all to nothing but stocks and shares, meaningless toy money for the world’s rich to play with. Of course, the truth was that’s what art had always been, for centuries if not longer. We just made it more ubiquitous, more efficient, more technologically mediated. We made it faster.


Maughan wrote the fascinating SF book Infinite Detail, about a world where the internet (and hence any supply chain that relies on it, ie all of them) has broken down irrevocably. Now he’s looking around at the scenery he sees more recently.
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The adorable love story behind Wikipedia’s ‘high five’ photos • Input Mag

Annie Rauwerda:


One reason I love the Wikipedia article for “high five” is that it’s one of those entries about an utterly basic aspect of everyday life that reads like it was written by a group of aliens observing human beings: “Its meaning varies with the context of use but can include as a greeting, congratulations, or celebration.”

But the high-five Wikipedia page is among my very favourites not because of its writing, but because of its iconic photos — specifically the ones in the section on the “too slow” variation. [High fives offers “up high, down low, too slow!]

I love the aughts fashion, the use of the word “victim,” and the fact that “finger-guns” gets a hyperlink in the last caption. The woman in the photo gives an Oscar-worthy performance in the final image — she looks like she’s on the verge of tears — and her male counterpart couldn’t look more smug. The pictures are endearing and capture a kind of humanity you don’t find in your average stock photo.

The sequence was uploaded on August 14, 2008 by Bgubitz, a user who describes themself as an accountant who likes “sunsets and long walks on the beach.” Today, photos from the “too slow” series are featured on Wikipedia pages in eight languages and get more than 200,000 annual views.

A quick search of “high five wikipedia photo” shows that the images are an object of fascination for many others besides me. People around the world have noted that the pair looks a lot like Rachel and Chandler from Friends. But not everyone is a fan. In 2020, one particularly passionate Wikipedia user named Kugihot suggested the photos be removed because they were “simply a waste of precious Wikipedia public bytes.”

Writing on the article’s talk page, the forum where editors discuss the article at hand, the critic went on: “My main concern that is especially out of place to me is the final image which depicts the use of finger guns, which is arguably completely and utterly irrelevant in the context of different variations of high fives.”

To me, the fact that the photos inspired such extreme pedantry speaks to their power.


And so she decided to try to find the two people in the article. Were they an article then before they became part of an article? Might they be now? Being an icon can be a lot of pressure down the years.
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Electrical network frequency analysis • Wikipedia


Electrical network frequency (ENF) analysis is an audio forensics technique for validating audio recordings by comparing frequency changes in background mains hum in the recording with long-term high-precision historical records of mains frequency changes from a database. In effect the mains hum signal is treated as if it were a time-dependent digital watermark that can help identify when the recording was created, detect edits in the recording, or disprove tampering of a recording. Historical records of mains frequency changes are kept on record, e.g., by police in the German federal state of Bavaria since 2010 and the United Kingdom Metropolitan Police since 2005.

The technology has been hailed as “the most significant development in audio forensics since Watergate.” However, according to a paper by Huijbregtse and Geradts, the ENF technique, although powerful, has significant limitations caused by ambiguity based on fixed frequency offsets during recording, and self-similarity within the mains frequency database, particularly for recordings shorter than 10 minutes.

More recently, researchers demonstrated that indoor lights such as fluorescent lights and incandescent bulbs vary their light intensity in accordance with the voltage supplied, which in turn depends on the voltage supply frequency. As a result, the light intensity can carry the frequency fluctuation information to the visual sensor recordings in a similar way as the electromagnetic waves from the power transmission lines carry the ENF information to audio sensing mechanisms.


Since I was wondering last week what use monitoring your mains frequency would be.. at least it’s useful to some people. (Still not sure that personally monitoring your own has that much benefit.) (Thanks @Reynolds.)
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Coronavirus: as BA.2 subvariant of Omicron rises, lab studies point to signs of severity • CNN

Brenda Goodman:


The BA.2 virus – a subvariant of the Omicron coronavirus variant – isn’t just spreading faster than its distant cousin, it may also cause more severe disease and appears capable of thwarting some of the key weapons we have against Covid-19, new research suggests.

New lab experiments from Japan show that BA.2 may have features that make it as capable of causing serious illness as older variants of Covid-19, including Delta.

And like Omicron, it appears to largely escape the immunity created by vaccines. A booster shot restores protection, making illness after infection about 74% less likely. BA.2 is also resistant to some treatments, including sotrovimab, the monoclonal antibody that’s currently being used against Omicron.

The findings were posted Wednesday as a preprint study on the bioRxiv server, before peer review…

“It might be, from a human’s perspective, a worse virus than BA.1 and might be able to transmit better and cause worse disease,” says Dr. Daniel Rhoads, section head of microbiology at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. Rhoads reviewed the study but was not involved in the research.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is keeping close watch on BA.2, said its director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

“There is no evidence that the BA.2 lineage is more severe than the BA.1 lineage. CDC continues to monitor variants that are circulating both domestically and internationally,” she said Friday.


There’s no evidence in humans. The Japanese paper infected hamsters and looked “surrogate markers for bronchoconstriction or airway obstruction”. Very unconfirmed.
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Why I will never buy another Samsung device • Medium

Juhani Lehtimäki:


I needed to replace my aging Pixel 4 and after watching Marques’ video I decided to face my old dislike and go for a Samsung device. The [foldable] form factor definitely made the phone interesting, although costly.

The phone arrived and to my surprise Samsung software had become bearable, even likable over the years since I last tried it. I swapped out my Pixel and the Flip became my daily driver. I started to really like the phone. Foldables will definitely have a place in the future line-up of smartphones. All was looking good and in 3 months in I was happy with my purchase. But then…

One day, I took the phone out of my pocket and the screen had a black part in the middle and the top half no longer responded to touch. When I got home the black part has expanded and kept growing. The screen clearly had failed from the fold. But hey, no worries, I had not dropped the phone, it was in case and I’ve only used the phone the way I’ve always used my other phones.

So I’ll just send it to Samsung for repairs and all is good. Folding is still new tech so shit happens, I didn’t really mind.. until I received a response from Samsung repair:


We regret that your Samsung SM-F711BZGEEUB could not be repaired under warranty.
Based on the information you have provided, we have contacted our service partner to obtain more detailed information regarding the repair.
During the technical inspection of your device, the technician was able to determine that in addition to the display, the frame is also broken and that this damage is due to a mechanical impact, such as a fall, bending or excessive pressure.



It’s pretty dramatically bad for a phone that cost €1,099. Samsung will fix the screen for €304. But his real argument is that for such an early product, making early adopters bear the downside won’t encourage adoption.
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Google should kill Stadia • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:


Google CEO Sundar Pichai opened the Stadia announcement by touting the worldwide scale of Google’s cloud, saying:


Our custom server hardware and data centers can bring more computing power to more people on planet Earth than anyone else. Today, we are in 19 regions and in over 200 countries and territories connected by hundreds of thousands of miles of fiber optic cables.


Google is a massive cloud computing company that has servers all over the world. So Stadia is available all over the world, right?

Not exactly. Stadia certainly isn’t available in “over 200 countries.” It’s available in just 22 countries, or about 10% of the scale Pichai heavily implied Google could work at.

Until recently, Stadia’s home inside Google has been the hardware division, with project leader Phil Harrison reporting to Google Hardware SVP Rick Osterloh. Google is actually pretty bad at competing on an international scale, and every Google Hardware product is capped at about 20 countries. It is strange that Stadia, a cloud service, ended up in the hardware division, but that’s where Google decided to put it. The company really wants people to use its game controller and Chromecast media players, so Stadia is limited to the small list of countries Google is willing to sell hardware in. (If you compare the Google Hardware country list to the Stadia country list, they are essentially the same.)

To be fair, international business is hard. Can any of Google’s competitors match Stadia’s 22-country distribution list?

Nvidia’s GeForce Now is available in 82 countries. Xbox Cloud Gaming—which is still labeled a “beta”—is available in 26 countries. Google is in third place. PlayStation Now—the most neglected service on our list (though it is reportedly due for a big update)—works in 19 countries. Google has Amazon Luna soundly beat, at least. That service is still in an invite-only “early access” and is available in one country, the United States.


Amadeo is frequently brutal about Google products and services, which must hurt the Google PR folk as he’s Ars Technica’s Google correspondent. There’s a lot more to this article, but he develops his case solidly.
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Being a Facebook Metaverse ‘Community Guide’ seems like a nightmare job • Vice

Emanuel Maiberg:


Imagine you had to moderate a Facebook comment thread, only each commenter was able to come up to you, wave their hands in your face, and scream whatever they want.

That’s what some moderators of Facebook virtual reality platform Horizon Worlds are dealing with, and it looks just as nightmarish as it sounds. 

“Trying to not smash my headset, like in frustration,” one Horizon Worlds Community Guide with the screen name Peanutbutter can be heard saying in a TikTok uploaded by @vrpranksters after interacting with a bunch of kids fighting and screaming over a virtual boomerang. 

“Shhhh, can you guys stop?” Peanutbutter asks the screaming kids as he floats away to a quiet corner and attempts to help an older man navigate Horizon Worlds’ menus. “Please, I’m trying to actually help an adult here.” 

Peanutbutter sighs loudly and approaches the group of kids. “You guys know you’re not supposed to hit each other in here and yet you’re doing it?” he asks.

Most people don’t know this because they don’t have virtual reality headsets, but Facebook isn’t just talking about the “metaverse” and selling Oculus devices. It is actively letting people create virtual reality spaces and hosting its own with a flagship VR platform it calls Horizon Worlds.

Facebook says that Horizon Worlds allows users to find and create “communities” in VR, which understandably requires what the company calls “Community Guides,” people who appear in these spaces in order to help users who are new to VR and also do some basic moderation. 


You can see the video at this tweet. It does indeed look like a nightmarish task.
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EU accuses China of ‘power grab’ over smartphone technology licensing • Financial Times

Andy Bounds:


The EU is taking China to the World Trade Organization for alleged patent infringements that are costing companies billions of euros, as part of what officials in Brussels claim is a “power grab” by Beijing to set smartphone technology licensing rates.

Businesses, including Sweden’s Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia and Sharp of Japan, have lost money after China’s supreme court banned them from protecting their patents by securing licensing deals in foreign courts, the European Commission said.

Chinese courts set licence fees at around half the market rate previously agreed between western technology providers and manufacturers such as Oppo, Xiaomi, ZTE and Huawei, it added.

“It is part of a global power grab by the Chinese government by legal means,” said a European Commission official. “It is a means to push Europe out.”

Smartphone makers have agreed global standards for telecommunications networks. In return, technology manufacturers must license their patents to others. If they cannot agree on a price, they go to court to set it. Chinese courts generally set prices at half the level of those in the west, meaning their companies pay less for the technology from overseas providers.

In August 2020, China’s Supreme People’s Court decided that Chinese courts can impose “anti-suit injunctions”, which forbid a company taking a case to a court outside the country. Those that do are liable for a €130,000 daily fine and the judgments of courts elsewhere are ignored.


Patents are a sort of intellectual property supply chain for smartphones in particular, and the disputes get very vicious and nationalistic.
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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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