Start Up No.1749: Icann leaves Russia online, Twitter goes Birdwatching, AMD and Intel ban, Venezuela users face crypto block, and more


Remember HTC? It isn’t dead yet, and it’s pivoting from the blockchain (yawn) to the metaverse (yay!). Still phones, of course. CC-licensed photo by Tony Webster on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Not part of a convoy. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


ICANN rejects Ukraine’s request to cut off Russia from the global internet • CNN

Brian Fung:

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The international non-profit that coordinates management of the internet told Ukraine it will not intervene in the country’s war with Russia, rebuffing a request to cut Russia off from the global internet.

Ukraine’s proposal is neither technically feasible nor within the mission of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, according to a letter ICANN sent to Ukrainian officials on Wednesday.

“As you know, the Internet is a decentralized system. No one actor has the ability to control it or shut it down,” ICANN CEO Göran Marby wrote in the the letter. Marby expressed his personal concern about Ukrainians’ well-being as well as the “terrible toll being exacted on your country.” But, he wrote, “our mission does not extend to taking punitive actions, issuing sanctions, or restricting access against segments of the Internet — regardless of the provocations.”

“Essentially,” he added, “ICANN has been built to ensure that the Internet works, not for its coordination role to be used to stop it from working.”

Internet governance experts previously told CNN that ICANN was expected to reject Ukraine’s plea, and that Ukraine’s proposal, if implemented, could have devastating consequences for average Russian internet users, including dissidents.

The original request, sent on Monday from Ukraine’s representative on ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, called for the Russian internet country code .RU and its Cyrillic equivalents to be revoked. The representative, Andrii Nabok, also said he was sending a separate request to Europe and Central Asia’s regional internet registry, asking it to take back all of the IP addresses it had assigned to Russia.

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Certainly it would be relatively trivial for lots of companies to block anything coming from a .ru address – and I recall a developer saying recently that he found the simplest way to cut spam by 99% or so was to block anything from that IP range. But it was never going to happen as a broad strategy. Ukraine has developed a clever strategy of asking for everything – cut Russia off the internet, implement no-fly zones – and thus making any little concession seem like both a victory on its part and parsimony on those who do it.
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Twitter’s Birdwatch fact-checking project moves forward with new test • The Washington Post

Will Oremus:

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Twitter will begin showing fact-checking notes, submitted by volunteers, on potentially misleading tweets to a small fraction of its users in a test in the United States this week. The test is a step forward for its experimental Birdwatch program, which seeks to enlist Twitter’s users to flag and debunk misinformation on the social platform.

Users in the test group will see a message inviting them to click for more context when they encounter a tweet that has been flagged by a volunteer fact-checker participating in Birdwatch. There, they’ll find one or more notes written by Birdwatch contributors, correcting or adding relevant background to the tweet itself, and ideally citing reliable outside sources. They’ll then be asked to rate the note’s helpfulness — ratings that in turn are used to determine whether to continue showing that note to others on Twitter.

Twitter launched the Birdwatch pilot more than 13 months ago, inviting interested users to apply to become volunteer fact-checkers. As The Washington Post reported on Tuesday, Twitter has enrolled some 10,000 people in the pilot, but just 359 of those had actively contributed fact-checking notes in 2022, as of Feb. 24. In all, Birdwatch contributors have been flagging about 43 tweets per day in recent months, a vanishingly small fraction of the posts on a global platform that is used by some 217 million people each day.

The hope is that, eventually, crowdsourced fact checks can help Twitter users avoid falling for and spreading misinformation, while helping Twitter itself limit the spread of such information.

Twitter is taking a cue from sites including Wikipedia that harness volunteer labor to vet information transparently, at high speed and low cost. The approach differs from rival Facebook’s, which has relied on partnerships with professional fact-checking organizations to identify false posts.

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Could work – better than Facebook’s system, but worse than Wikipedia’s because that has a static page to coalesce around.
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Putin no longer seems like a master of disinformation • The New York Times

Farhad Manjoo:

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The Ukrainian crisis shows that the West has learned a lot about countering Russian propaganda in the past few years. Social media companies are now adept at spotting and removing Russian disinformation. The Biden administration has been masterful at “prebunking” Russia’s moves; by disseminating intelligence about Russian plans almost as quickly as it collects it, the White House has managed to embarrass and undermine Russian efforts to control the Ukraine story.

Then there’s the steadfast bravery and media wiliness of the Ukrainians, whom Helmus described as “a messaging adversary of the type Russia has never seen before.” As the Russian military bore down on their nation, Ukrainians began filling the internet with irresistible footage of their determination — the 79-year-old grandmother taking up arms against the invaders, the fearless young man kneeling in front of a Russian tank, the member of parliament who boasts on Fox News about kicking Putin’s derrière. In a series of inspirational battlefield dispatches, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, has projected an air of heroic machismo of the sort that Putin has long tried to cultivate.

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It’s the simplicity and directness of the Ukrainian message – and especially its focus through Zelensky, who as an actor (his former job) knows completely the power of a moving image and a few powerful words – that makes it such a complete antidote, or even kryptonite, to Russia’s efforts.
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AMD and Intel halt processor sales to Russia • Tom’s Hardware

Paul Alcorn:

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In a sign that the United States government’s export restrictions on semiconductor sales to Russia due to its war against Ukraine have been enacted swiftly, AMD has confirmed that it has suspended chip sales to Russia, and according to multiple reports, Intel has taken the same steps. In addition, reports have also emerged that TSMC’s decision to participate in the sanctions will thwart Russia’s supply of homegrown chips. Intel and AMD have both provided us with a statement on the matter, and we have also reached out to Nvidia for comment.

The Russian media outlets also claim that the suspensions have been confirmed by the Association of Russian Developers and Electronics Manufacturers (ARPE). Additionally, Chinese IT companies are said to have been notified by Intel that sales to Russia have been banned.

An AMD representative told Tom’s Hardware, “Based on sanctions placed on Russia by the United States and other nations, at this time AMD is suspending its sales and distribution of our products into Russia and Belarus.”

Intel provided the following comment to Tom’s Hardware: “Intel complies with all applicable export regulations and sanctions in the countries in which it operates, including the new sanctions issued by OFAC [Office of Foreign Assets Control] and the regulations issued by BIS [Bureau of Industry and Security].”

The extent of Intel’s halted sales is currently unclear. The new export restrictions are primarily aimed at chips for military purposes or dual-use chips that could be used for both civilian and military purposes. That means sales of most consumer-focused chips, like Intel’s Core chips, likely won’t be impacted. However, it is widely expected that there will be a temporary halt for all semiconductor sales to Russia as companies work to decide which products and customers are impacted.

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Depending how long this all goes on (and I think we should expect that it will last months, not weeks) we could see the slow-motion collapse of Russia’s economy and infrastructure. Artillery apart, its military has not looked too well prepared – despite all those “manoeuvres” – in the past week, and that can only get worse as sanctions bite.
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A view from Russian academia • Tatyana Deryugina

Deryugina wrote to loads of Russian academics asking why they weren’t protesting. She got a response from one, which she was given permission to share:

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Here is also my view as to why the Russian people are not protesting en masse:

1: Negative influence of the USSR: beginning with the immigration after 1917 and Stalinist purges and ending with the destruction of the will to live freely to the falling apart of the country. People didn’t live normally and so don’t want to live normally now, those who protest are mostly very young.

2. A non-trivial share of the people are idiots. They can’t or, for many reasons, don’t want to absorb non-one-sided information and just want to be “outside of politics”. And the most accessible information is, sadly, propaganda.

3. Propaganda is literally EVERYWHERE. On TV it reaches absurd proportions, and besides that special bot farms write a huge number of online comments, forming a false public opinion and swaying those who are uncertain to their side.

4. A huge army of siloviki (strongmen). Ukraine’s Maidan could happen because resistance [against the protestors] was not comparable to that of Russia and Belorussia. The Russian government has a huge horde of policemen and Rosgvardiya [National Guard of Russia] who get paid decent money just for brutally beating people who simply show up to a demonstration (and actually get pleasure out of doing so because they are idealistic and see enemies in those who show up). Then they imprison the people for 30 days and then create problems for them in their studies or work. And any resistance leads to a huge prison sentence. I’m not even mentioning, that people can be jailed for several years for tweets or social media posts (this is not an exaggeration!)

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“A non-trivial share of the people are idiots” is pretty widely applicable, isn’t it.
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Ukraine population density • Airwars

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This interactive map depicts the population per square kilometre of Ukraine. Using data from the WorldPop initiative, each point is colour coded from least to most densely populated. The data comes from bedfore Russia’s invasion on February 24 2022.

Click on any location to reveal the population density there and search for specifgic locations or coordinates using the search bar.

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Even on a first glance it’s quite sparsely populated, with occasional flashes of urban concentration; Russia is trying to occupy a whole load of wide open space.

By contrast, the UK has an average population density of 283 people per sq km; for Ukraine it’s 75. It’s also been seeing continued depopulation due to emigration, plus low birth/high death rates. The former has speeded up dramatically now, of course.
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HTC pivots from blockchain to the metaverse for its next smartphone gimmick • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

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HTC’s slow-motion fall from smartphone grace is reportedly set to continue in 2022, with the company said to be working on a new “metaverse”-focused phone in April as the remnants of the once-flagship smartphone company continues to desperately cling to whatever zeitgeist term it can to stay afloat, according to DigiTimes.

The news comes from Charles Huang, HTC’s general manager for the Asia-Pacific region, who reportedly commented at MWC 2022 that the company would be introducing a new high-end smartphone next month with unspecified “metaverse” features. Details are slim, including any specs, markets it’ll be released in, or even what kind of AR or VR features the new device will offer.

The news sounds a lot like HTC’s last major pivot towards relevancy: its Exodus line of blockchain phones that its offered for the past few years. Promising decentralized apps (“Dapps”) and a built-in cryptocurrency wallet, the phones could run blockchain nodes and even mine paltry amounts of cryptocurrency, but — like many instances of blockchain technology — it was a solution largely in search of a problem that never really took off.

For argument’s sake, a metaverse phone would at least make slightly more sense than a blockchain one, if only because HTC has actually been a major player in the virtual reality space.

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As Gartenberg notes:

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Given that HTC’s Viverse doesn’t really exist — nor does widespread adoption of any modern metaverse concept — it’s easy for the company to just say it’s making a metaverse app or phone. After all, who’s to say that you aren’t?

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First reaction: HTC is still going? Next reaction: how small can it get? Total revenues last year were $140m. That’s about 1% of its peak revenue (from 2011). Sometimes they just don’t die, they just fade Zeno-style.
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Wikimedia says it ‘will not back down’ after Russia censorship threat • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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The Wikimedia Foundation has issued a statement supporting Russian Wikipedia volunteers after a censorship demand from internet regulators. On Tuesday, tech and communications regulator Roskomnadzor threatened to block Wikipedia over the Russian-language page covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, claiming it contained “false messages” about war casualties and the effects of economic sanctions, among other things.

“On March 1st 2022 the Wikimedia Foundation received a Russian government demand to remove content related to the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine posted by volunteer contributors to Russian Wikipedia,” reads the statement sent to The Verge via email. “As ever, Wikipedia is an important source of reliable, factual information in this crisis. In recognition of this important role, we will not back down in the face of efforts to censor and intimidate members of our movement. We stand by our mission to deliver free knowledge to the world.”

The Roskomnadzor demand, which was posted in Russian Wikipedia’s Telegram channel, demands Wikimedia address user edits from a February 27th version of the article. As translated by Wikimedia Russia, it takes issue with “information about numerous casualties among the military personnel of the Russian Federation, as well as the civilian population of Ukraine, including number of children,” as well as “the need to withdraw funds from accounts in banks of the Russian Federation in connection with the sanctions imposed by foreign states.” (While the war’s casualties remain difficult to estimate, the United Nations has confirmed hundreds of civilian deaths in Ukraine since the conflict began last week, including at least 13 children, and acknowledged that its numbers likely underestimate the real death toll.)

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The truth hurts.
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IKEA pauses operations in Russia and Belarus • Ikea.com

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The war has had a huge human impact already. It is also resulting in serious disruptions to supply chain and trading conditions. For all of these reasons, the company groups have decided to temporarily pause IKEA operations in Russia. 

This means that:

• Inter IKEA Group has taken the decision to pause all export and import in and out of Russia and Belarus
• Inter IKEA Group has taken the decision to pause all IKEA Industry production operations in Russia. This also means that all deliveries from all sub-suppliers to these units are paused
• Ingka Group has taken the decision to pause all IKEA Retail operations in Russia, while the shopping centre Mega will continue to be open to ensure that the many people in Russia have access to their daily needs and essentials such as food, groceries and pharmacies.  

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Seems to me the smart thing to do if you really want to disrupt them is just to hide all the Allen keys. Or take two screws out of every assembly kit.
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Venezuelan users of crypto wallet MetaMask say they can no longer access it • The Block

MK Manoylov:

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Users of MetaMask based in Venezuela say they can no longer access the popular digital asset wallet. 

Messages about the issue began to crop up on social media on Wednesday, with numerous examples spreading as of late Thursday morning. The suspected culprit is the API for Infura, a blockchain node infrastructure network.  

A MetaMask support page, updated an hour before press time, states that “MetaMask and Infura are unavailable in certain jurisdictions due to legal compliance.”

…Word of the blockages also prompted commentary on the use of VPNs to circumvent the issue. 

Unclear at present is the extent to which the reported blockages represent at tightening of rules with respect to other countries sanctioned by the US and other governments. Users from Iran and Lebanon appear to have been affected, though many of the recent messages pertain to Venezuelan access. 

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Big win for decentralisation, yes?
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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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