Start Up No.1791: EU accuses Apple over NFC access, Spanish PM hit by NSO malware, Facebook kills its podcast business, and more


The US doesn’t have as wide a variety of crisp flavours as many other countries. Why is that, exactly, for such a large country? CC-licensed photo by Charles Hutchins on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. What holiday? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

(If you weren’t reading your email yesterday, you missed yesterday’s email/web post, which included stuff such as Jony Ive’s last days at Apple, why “vampire devices” are overblown, polarisation in the US, tractors stolen by Russia from Ukraine disabled remotely, and more.)


EU claims Apple breaking competition law over contactless payments • The Guardian

Mark Sweney:

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EU regulators have charged Apple with breaking competition law by limiting rivals’ access to technology that is key to making contactless payments, unfairly benefiting its own Apple Pay service.

The European Commission said on Monday that Apple “sets the rules” on its closed platform and expressed concern that it has been limiting access to technology called near field communication (NFC), which rivals need for tap-and-go payments to be made in stores using mobile wallets.

“On a preliminary basis, we have found that Apple abused its dominant position,” said Margrethe Vestager, the commission’s executive vice-president in charge of competition policy.

“Apple restricted access to key inputs that are necessary to develop and run mobile payments apps, so-called ‘mobile wallets’. Evidence on our file indicates that some developers did not go ahead with their plans as they were not able to reach iPhone users.”

The commission said the Silicon Valley company’s Apple Pay service is “by far the largest NFC-based mobile wallet on the market”.

“The preliminary conclusion we reached today relates to mobile payments in shops,” said Vestager. “By excluding others from the game, Apple has unfairly shielded its Apple Pay wallet from competition. If proven, this behaviour would amount to abuse of a dominant position, which is illegal under our rules.”

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This is the EU’s press release, which says Apple “abused its dominant position in markets for mobile wallets on iOS devices”. That’s a rather narrow market definition, even though the EU also says that it’s dominant (which usually means 40% or more). Apple’s share of the EU smartphone market can’t be 40%, but maybe it’s getting that way (or further) for active NFC systems.

That’s prelude for what Apple would argue in court if (when) it chooses to fight this. The good result would be that it simply opens up the NFC APIs to everyone else so you can pay for coffee in Starbucks with your Starbucks card via NFC, or your bank debit card, or whatever. But probably don’t hold you breath.
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Spain: 2021 spyware attack targeted prime minister’s phone • AP News

Aritz Parra:

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The cellphones of Spain’s prime minister and defense minister were infected last year with Pegasus spyware, which is available only to countries’ government agencies, authorities announced Monday.

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s mobile phone was breached twice in May 2021, and Defense Minister Margarita Robles’ device was targeted once the following month, Cabinet Minister Félix Bolaños said.

The breaches, which resulted in a significant amount of data being obtained, were not authorized by a Spanish judge, which is a legal requirement for national covert operations, Bolaños said at a hastily convened news conference in Madrid.

“We have no doubt that this is an illicit, unauthorized intervention,” Bolaños said. “It comes from outside state organisms and it didn’t have judicial authorization.”

The Socialist-led government was during those months under intense scrutiny over its handling of a major foreign policy spat with Morocco and gripped by a tense domestic dispute over the release of jailed separatists from Spain’s restive Catalonia region.

Bolaños refused to speculate who might have been behind the Pegasus breach, nor what might have prompted it. The National Court opened an investigation into the breach, and a parliamentary committee on intelligence affairs was set to look into it.

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Quickly getting to the stage where it’s easier to count the heads of state who haven’t been targeted by NSO’s Pegasus. It’s a shrinking group.
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The real reason international chips [crisps] have more interesting flavours • Eater

Jaya Saxena:

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Given that the US is a big country, you’d think that if 15% of the population is interested in a hot pot chip, that’s still millions of people these companies could be reaching. But according to [CEO of Gastrograph AI, Jason] Cohen, the way research is done usually won’t catch those people who want more unusual flavours. When choosing people to taste-test new products, major snack companies look for “heavy users,” or people who eat chips around four times a week. That volume likely has to do with how a lot of people eat chips — as a side with a lunch sandwich or soup, requiring a flavour that doesn’t overpower whatever it’s being paired with. But even if you’re buying chips to eat independently, that’s a lot. “The average consumer doesn’t eat chips four times a week. So they’re choosing people who are already dedicated potato chip eaters,” which holds back making more targeted products.

Furthermore, it ignores people who are not currently chip eaters, but who might eat them more if there were more interesting flavours around. And it ignores how much someone may like chips to begin with. To determine whether a new flavour is worth making, Cohen says chip companies have test subjects do a side-by-side taste test with a chip already on the market. And for them to produce it, the majority of the tasters must like the new chip more than what already exists. “Half the people in that panel could say, ‘I don’t know. I like this one at a six and I like this one at a five,’” and 15% of the panel could say the new chip is the best thing they’ve ever tasted, and the company still won’t make it, says Cohen. “They don’t base their decisions on the magnitude of preference, they base it on the mean of preference.”

Mark Lang, associate professor of marketing at the University of Tampa, says this unwillingness to take risks on products extends to manufacturing and retail as well. “A product has to appeal to more than half the people in the country to fit into their factories and take up the millions of units that they put through their factories,” he says. Even if Frito-Lay’s [which makes many of the international crisp flavours] already manufactures these flavours in other countries, in order to avoid spending the money developing and testing a new recipe, “they need flavours that 60% of the population want to buy. That just knocks off all that cool stuff.”

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There’s a radio programme on BBC 6 Music on weekends featuring Stuart Maconie and Mark Radcliffe (0800-1000), and one of their features is “Crisps On The Radio“. Listeners send weird varieties of flavoured crisps in from all over the world, and they sample them and try to guess the flavour. It’s mad, and excellent. They don’t seem to get many crisps from the US. Maybe this is why.
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UK exposes sick Russian troll factory plaguing social media with Kremlin propaganda • GOV.UK

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UK-funded expert research has exposed how the Kremlin is using a troll factory to spread lies on social media and in comment sections of popular websites.

The cyber soldiers are ruthlessly targeting politicians and audiences across a number of countries including the UK, South Africa and India.

The research exposes how the Kremlin’s large-scale disinformation campaign is designed to manipulate international public opinion of Russia’s illegitimate war in Ukraine, trying to grow support for their abhorrent war, and recruiting new Putin sympathisers.

Sick masterminds of the operation are believed to be working overtly from an old factory in St Petersburg, with paid employees, and internal working teams.

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The language in this – from two government departments, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – is amazing. “Troll factory”. “Cyber soldiers”. “Ruthlessly targeting”. The war is both “illegitimate” and “abhorrent”. “Sick masterminds” who are “working overtly”. Seems like it’s tailored to be taken directly into the Daily Express’s content management system. (Photos of FC sec Liz Truss available.)

It’s jointly signed by Truss and sometime-novelist Nadine Dorries, who spent much of Monday retweeting a Daily Mail story suggesting her political opponents broke lockdown laws in 2020, whose main photographic proof involved Sir Keir Starmer sitting with Frank Dobson – a photo taken in 2015. Dobson died in 2019. She then said she “wasn’t responsible” for the photographs.

But anyway, sick masterminds and cyber soldiers working overtly. We’re onto them.
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Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation • Nature

Melanie Brucks and Jonathan Levav:

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In a laboratory study and a field experiment across five countries (in Europe, the Middle East and South Asia), we show that videoconferencing inhibits the production of creative ideas. By contrast, when it comes to selecting which idea to pursue, we find no evidence that videoconferencing groups are less effective (and preliminary evidence that they may be more effective) than in-person groups.

Departing from previous theories that focus on how oral and written technologies limit the synchronicity and extent of information exchanged, we find that our effects are driven by differences in the physical nature of videoconferencing and in-person interactions.

Specifically, using eye-gaze and recall measures, as well as latent semantic analysis, we demonstrate that videoconferencing hampers idea generation because it focuses communicators on a screen, which prompts a narrower cognitive focus. Our results suggest that virtual interaction comes with a cognitive cost for creative idea generation.

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Brucks and Levav are both in the marketing divisions of business schools (Columbia and Stanford). I wonder how long it will take for “bad” ideas created in the Zoom pipeline to reach the post-pandemic world. For example, there’s been a lot of criticism of the webcam in Apple’s Studio Display: almost certainly that was designed with a lot of decisions made via, uh, webcams and videoconferencing. Could the medium have been part of the confusing message?
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Facebook pulls the plug on podcast business after a year • Bloomberg via Yahoo

Ashley Carman:

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Facebook will stop letting people add podcasts to the service starting this week, according to a note sent to partners. It will discontinue both its short-form audio product Soundbites and remove its central audio hub.

Facebook announced various audio efforts last April during a hot market for podcasting and audio in general. But the company’s interest has waned, Bloomberg News reported last month, and it’s now focused on other initiatives, disappointing some providers.

“We’re constantly evaluating the features we offer so we can focus on the most meaningful experiences,” a Meta spokesperson said an email. The person added that they didn’t have a specific date on when Soundbites and the audio hub would shut down but it will be in the “coming weeks.”

In the note to partners, Facebook said it doesn’t plan to alert users to the fact that podcasts will no longer be available, leaving it up to the publishers to decide how they want to disclose that information. Live Audio Rooms will be integrated into Facebook Live, meaning users can choose to go live with just audio or audio and video.

The podcast market has grown crowded in recent years. Spotify Technology SA has both licensed hit shows and acquired companies. Amazon.com Inc. purchased the podcast network Wondery and also a hosting platform. The live audio platform Clubhouse was valued at about $4bn last year and every tech company wanted to copy its product.

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Exactly a year. Ryan Broderick predicted what would happen back in April last year:

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I suspect it will go exactly like all other content types supported by Facebook. At first, the algorithm will over-promote it. Because of the scale of the site and economic value of Facebook virality, this will create an audio gold rush on the platform. More than a few media companies will almost certainly get involved. If audio doesn’t stick with Facebook users, which I think is likely, the dial on audio will be turned down, any media companies that staffed up for the push will have layoffs, and there will be like a couple dozen random people who are suddenly massive podcast names with millions of listeners that you’ll probably never hear about until they come out as anti-vaxxers or something.

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Another firing among Google’s AI brain trust, and more discord • The New York Times

Daisuke Wakabayashi and Cade Metz:

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Less than two years after Google dismissed two researchers who criticized the biases built into artificial intelligence systems, the company has fired a researcher who questioned a paper it published on the abilities of a specialized type of artificial intelligence used in making computer chips.

The researcher, Satrajit Chatterjee, led a team of scientists in challenging the celebrated research paper, which appeared last year in the scientific journal Nature and said computers were able to design certain parts of a computer chip faster and better than human beings.

Dr. Chatterjee, 43, was fired in March, shortly after Google told his team that it would not publish a paper that rebutted some of the claims made in Nature, said four people familiar with the situation who were not permitted to speak openly on the matter. Google confirmed in a written statement that Dr. Chatterjee had been “terminated with cause.”

Google declined to elaborate about Dr. Chatterjee’s dismissal, but it offered a full-throated defense of the research he criticized and of its unwillingness to publish his assessment.

“We thoroughly vetted the original Nature paper and stand by the peer-reviewed results,” Zoubin Ghahramani, a vice president at Google Research, said in a written statement. “We also rigorously investigated the technical claims of a subsequent submission, and it did not meet our standards for publication.”

Dr. Chatterjee’s dismissal was the latest example of discord in and around Google Brain, an AI research group considered to be a key to the company’s future.

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This was the Nautre writeup, last June. I thought it was “epochal”. Maybe it wasn’t after all.
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Is the metaverse the future of the internet? A Globe journalist steps inside to find out • Globe and Mail

Joe Castaldo:

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One afternoon, I took a tour with Andrew Kiguel, co-founder and CEO of a Toronto-based company called Tokens.com. Among other things, it has a subsidiary called the Metaverse Group that buys virtual land, builds on it and leases space to firms looking to plant a flag. So far, the company has bought parcels in 10 different realms and values its portfolio in the eight-figure range.

In Decentraland, Mr. Kiguel appeared as a bearded figurine in a checkered shirt and an eye patch. He chose the name Milo, after his dog. We walked through a neighbourhood called Crypto Valley, where the company had assembled a tower that looked like something out of a 1950s sci-fi movie. It was lit by spotlights, with the word “Tokens.com” rotating in the night sky.

“We may eventually sell the naming rights,” Mr. Kiguel remarked. I noticed that next door someone had built a marketplace to peddle erotic anime NFTs. “You can’t choose your neighbours,” Mr. Kiguel said, “but we also have Binance.” Indeed, the crypto exchange had a building across the road.

As we strolled along a promenade with superfluous benches (avatars cannot sit down), he mentioned Decentraland is made up of 90,000 land parcels, half of which can be developed. “In five years, if there’s millions of people using this world, those parcels are going to be worth a lot of money,” he said. “These brands are all looking for virtual storefronts, and they have to come to us.”

A report from PwC recently stated the obvious: Digital real estate is risky, since none of these worlds has proved to have any staying power. Still, Tokens.com secured tenants for its tower, where it will construct digital office space. Renno & Co., a Canadian law firm specializing in digital assets, will be among them.

Renno co-founder Toufic Adlouni said one reason is to gain experience. “It’s hard to give legal advice on something you don’t fundamentally understand,” he said. Prospective clients could wander in, too, though no one at the firm will keep office hours. Instead, Mr. Adlouni sees it as another social-media platform that can be checked occasionally, like LinkedIn.

For all the hype, Decentraland seemed strangely deserted a lot of the time.

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Castaldo points out, quietly, that this is yet another “get in early!” piece of pump-priming to get the suckers in. If there can be any number of metaverses, how do you give yours value? (The one that sounds most satisfying is Totoro’s Bus Stop, which will only mean anything if you know about the film My Neighbour Totoro.)
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How fear of nuclear power supports Putin and global warming • Washington Post

Harry Stevens:

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Fear is the future’s tollbooth, and it can collect its fee in surprising ways. After 9/11, more people than expected began to die in car accidents on US freeways, multiple studies found. People scared of the vivid threat of a midair terrorist attack apparently opted for the statistically more dangerous behavior of long-distance driving.

Likewise, lots of people are scared of nuclear waste, which can be stored safely or reprocessed into useful things such as medical isotopes. The byproducts of coal-fired plants pose a more imminent threat. Following Germany’s nuclear phaseout, an estimated 1,100 additional people died each year from inhaling the poisonous gases and particle pollution from the coal plants Germany used to temporarily replace its nuclear ones.

There is another, longer-term cost of nuclear fear. Germany has pledged to sharply reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to help slow global warming; it built thousands of wind turbines and solar arrays to wean itself off fossil fuels. But claiming to be serious about fighting climate change while powering down nuclear power plants is a bit like leaping into the ring to fight Tyson Fury without boxing gloves on. Talk as tough as you like, but people might wonder whether you’re serious about winning.

“If you were designing a truly rational energy system to move towards a zero-carbon energy system, this is not the path you’d be taking,” Randy Bell, senior director for global energy security at the Atlantic Council, said of Germany’s decision to abandon nuclear power.

Even accounting for emissions created during the building of the facility and the mining of its fuel, the typical nuclear plant produces fewer greenhouse gases than power plants fueled by natural gas and coal, and about the same as those running on renewable sources such as wind and solar.

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Stevens suggests renaming it “elemental power”, though I’m not sure that would quite work. I like “fear is the future’s tollbooth” as a phrase. Here’s an expression of confidence to compare against Germany’s: 50% of Ukraine’s electricity generation comes from nuclear power, the world’s third-largest share. That’s Ukraine, home of the Chernobyl power plant.
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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?

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


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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