Start Up No.1814: Instagram’s Iran failings, US rolls toward antitrust, cars v pedestrians, the impending food crisis, and more


The iPad Pro may be getting more resizable windows in Apple’s WWDC update next week. How close to a Mac will it get? CC-licensed photo by HS You on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Jubilee-fuelled. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Operational note: The Overspill will be taking a one-week break next week. We’re confident nothing important will happen.


Human survival is a policy choice • Pasteurs’ Cube

Peter Wildeford:

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Toby Ord, a senior research fellow at Oxford University and a guy who has the bleak job of thinking full-time on how life on Earth might perish, wrote a book The Precipice which outlines just that. According to his research, the next 100 years look like this:

That’s a 5 in 6 chance we make it through as a species, but a 1 in 6 chance that some new technology or other issue does us in. This may sound hard to believe, but given the phenomenal stakes, surely it is worth investing more in looking into? Not just COVID and future pandemics, but also nuclear war, artificial intelligence[4], and unknown unknowns.

You can quibble some with the specific numbers that Ord gives (I certainly do), but the point still stands. Whether it is “1 in 6” or “1 in 10”, it is still uncomortably high risk. We should do what we can to mitigate that.

For example, Ord points out that “the international body responsible for the continued prohibition of bioweapons has an annual budget of just $1.4 million – less than the average McDonald’s restaurant.” Seems like they should have more funding?

But the good news is that progress is possible:
• Via Operation Warp Speed, we produced several safe and effective COVID vaccines in just a year, and then quickly we manufactured and delivered those vaccines at scale
• NASA has met its goal of tracking 90% of near-earth asteroids larger than 1 kilometre in diameter
• Thanks to rapidly declining solar power prices, more electric vehicles, a shift from coal to natural gas, and other important international policy initiatives, we are successfully averting the most dire climate change scenarios (like +4C/+7F) and holding ourselves closer to +2C/+3.5F
• Thanks to international arms control agreements, we have moved from a height of over 63,000 nuclear weapons in the 1980s to under 14,000 nuclear weapons today
• There’s been progress on a pan-coronavirus vaccine that could protect us from a wide variety of coronaviruses, not just COVID-19, and not just coranaviruses we already know about.

We need much more than this! But progress is possible and I’m optimistic we can push for more progress.

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Optimism! In short supply, but here at The Overspill we’re always trying to mine the seams we find.
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How Instagram is failing protesters in Iran • Slate

Mahsa Alimardani:

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At one point, Telegram was the main communication tool during protests. But in May 2018, the app was censored by Iranian authorities. Now, Instagram is Iran’s most popular and only uncensored foreign social media platform. (It’s the second most used app after WhatsApp.) And in recent weeks, it’s begun taking down footage of protests and related content, apparently because of a policy change on not administering exceptions in reaction to the backlash against Meta’s content moderation policies at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

On May 12, reports started to surface that users posting about the protests in Persian were experiencing mass takedowns. The affected Instagram accounts included one of the biggest protest documentation networks, the 1500Tasvir collective, and even in one case the diaspora Persian language media outlet Iran International.

All of the content removed appeared to have one thing in common: either a caption or audio included the common dissident protest slogan “Death to the Dictator,” reframed to include Iran’s du jour cadre of dictators including: “Death to Khamenei” (the current supreme leader); “Death to Raisi” (the current president) and “Death to the Revolutionary Guards/Basij” (the paramilitary forces responsible for violent repression of protest and dissent).

To Western observers, it might seem obvious that “Death to” a person would violate content guidelines against calling for violence. But in the Iranian context, “death to the dictator” has long been a symbolic slogan of dissent against Iran’s theocratic authoritarian system, rather than a call for actual death. At one point, Meta—Instagram’s parent company—understood this. During the July 2021 protests, after much reporting and discussion, Facebook created a “death to Khamenei” temporary exception to content moderation guidelines. Now, almost a year later, the same problem has emerged, only the scale of the protests have expanded and Meta is no longer abiding by that exception.

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The thing I find odd about Instagram is that you can’t make a post go viral: there’s no “retweet” function, though you can take a Post and put it in a Story. (But you can’t take part of a Story and put it in a Post.. right?) Which means that virality is mediated entirely through popular accounts, or by the Explore tab. Which means that as a means for getting your political message out, it’s substantially limited.
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Alito seems cool now with the godfather of anti-tech antitrust • Protocol

Ben Brody:

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In a dissent released Tuesday, [US Supreme Court justice Samuel] Alito wrote for himself and two of his fellow conservatives that he would let a Texas law proceed during an appeal. The law in question punishes big social media companies for their treatment of particular viewpoints in a way that most scholars think violates those corporations’ free speech rights. A majority of the Court blocked the law.

But Alito also was clear to refer to “the power of dominant social media corporations” and gave a shoutout to Justice Louis Brandeis, the progressive icon of the early 20th century. That framing of the might of services like Facebook, and the approving reference to a jurist who’s more or less the patron saint of the hipster antitrust movement, suggested to some that a bloc of Supreme Court conservatives may be sympathetic to the strange-bedfellows push to beat back the companies through antitrust enforcement.

“We have no doubt that champagne bottles were being popped at the law firm of Wu, Khan and Kanter,” Blair Levin and Matt Perault wrote in a research note, referring to three high-profile competition-law reformers in the administration.

Lina Khan, the chair of Federal Trade Commission, is pursuing the agency’s competition case against Meta, while Jonathan Kanter heads up the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, which is pursuing a lawsuit against Google. Both are expected to go through lengthy appeals — or even potentially end up before the Supreme Court — and both have fans among certain prominent Republicans who view antitrust enforcement as a way to punish Big Tech for how it handles right-wing speech.

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Alito is making it up as he goes along. There’s absolutely no justification under the US Constitution, in any reasonable reading of the First Amendment, that supports the Texas law. (That basically tells social media companies they have to leave any content up, which is in opposition both to Section 230 – letting platforms choose what to leave up – and the First Amendment, because it’s the government telling a private company what to “print”.) That’s a terrible choice for “hey, this guy supports our antitrust position!”
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When cars kill pedestrians • The New Yorker

Danyoung Kim:

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As the historian Peter Norton writes in his book “Fighting Traffic,” starting in the 1920s, the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, the leading lobbying group for car manufacturers, persuaded editors to publish its pseudo-statistical “news reports” on car crashes, which spread the idea that “jaywalkers”—a pejorative for people from rural areas who didn’t know how to navigate city streets—were responsible for their own injuries and deaths. Auto clubs sponsored street shows in which jaywalkers were lampooned by clowns and convicted in mock trials held by children.

This industry campaign helped to bring about what Norton calls a “social reconstruction of the street,” in which pedestrians were taught to accommodate cars, not the other way around. A new school of urban designers, called highway engineers, refashioned cities to push pedestrians and cyclists further to the margins. Meanwhile, media coverage of car crashes grew less critical of drivers, and a sense of fatalism began to envelop the consequences of traffic collisions, which are typically called “accidents,” suggesting that no one is to blame and nothing can be changed. (Plane crashes are not described in the same way.)

By century’s end, cars had grown progressively larger, better insulated from the feedback of the surrounding environment, and safer for the people inside them. Those on the outside were less lucky. The US automotive lobby resisted regulations enacted in Europe that made cars and trucks less lethal, and, by 2018, the number of pedestrian and cyclist deaths per kilometre in the United States was more than four times higher than in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark. Among the most vulnerable are older adults, who in 2020 made up 20% of killed pedestrians, and people who live in low-income neighborhoods where there has been little investment in safe road design.

Between 2010 and 2019, as the number of US drivers or passengers who died in collisions held fairly steady, deaths of those on bikes rose 36%, and deaths of those on foot nearly doubled.

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The, ahem, killer comment:

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“Nobody ever looks at the car as a weapon,” [journalist Aaron] Naparstek said. “The basic rule that I discovered over the years is if you ever want to murder someone in New York City, do it with a car.”

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Apple plans to make the iPad more like a laptop and less like a phone • Bloomberg via Mercury News

Mark Gurman:

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Apple will announce significant changes to the iPad’s software next week at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference, according to people with knowledge of the matter, part of a push to make the device more like a laptop and less like a phone.

The iPad’s next major software update, iPadOS 16, will have a redesigned multitasking interface that makes it easier to see what apps are open and switch between tasks, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the changes aren’t yet public. It also will let users resize app windows and offer new ways for users to handle multiple apps at once.

The iPad accounts for nearly 9% of annual Apple’s sales, and that percentage has inched up in recent years. But professional users of the device have clamored for an interface that feels more like a laptop experience. The iPad’s hardware, which now includes the same M1 chip as some of Apple’s laptops, has grown increasingly powerful, and in some ways the software hasn’t kept up.

A spokesperson for the Cupertino, California-based company declined to comment.

The new iPad interface will be one of the biggest upgrades announced at the conference, which will also include software updates for the iPhone, Mac, Apple Watch and Apple TV. The tech giant holds the conference each year to show off new features and device enhancements that developers can harness with their apps.

Currently, iPad users can either run apps in a full-screen view like on an iPhone or run two apps side by side. The company also lets users add a scaled-down version of a third app by sliding it over from the side. The changes will expand upon that interface.

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The question of how much (more) an iPad should be like a Mac has troubled, well, everyone for quite a few years now. There’s been piecemeal movement to give it more laptop-like capability, but resizable overlapping windows à la Macintosh would be the next step. There has to come a point when you ask what the difference is.
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Britain is one shock away from a food crisis, experts warn • Daily Telegraph

Harriet Barber is the Telegraph’s “global health security reporter”, which is a title I’d never heard before:

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In the past three years, food prices in the UK have been shaken by Covid, Brexit and now Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The impact on food is already being felt by people across the country.

Almost one in 20 British households said one of their family members went a whole day without eating in the past month, because they couldn’t afford or get access to food. In April 2022, 13.8% of households experienced moderate or severe food insecurity, a five percentage point increase on January 2022, according to analysis by the Food Foundation.

Emma, a mother of three from Kent, and who works three jobs, told BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday that she had not eaten three meals a day for months because she wanted to make sure she could afford food for her children.

The most recent blow has been Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The two countries together accounted for 29% of international wheat annual sales, while Ukraine grew enough food for 400 million people. Russia is also a major fertiliser exporter, and the surge in its pricing – linked to a surge in the price of gas – has impacted British farmers.

“George Eustice, the UK Secretary of State for Defra, said we don’t need to worry about Ukraine. I don’t know what on earth is going on in Defra for the Secretary of State in charge of food supply to be so inaccurate and inappropriate,” Prof [Tim] Lang [emeritus professor of food policy at the University of London] said. “Ukraine has rocketed world food prices, oil and fertiliser prices, grain and edible oil prices.”

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The interview with Emma was shocking: a portrait of a mother trying to keep her children fed, at the expense of herself.
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Tim Hortons app tracked too much personal information without adequate consent, investigation finds • CBC News

Nojoud Al Mellees:

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The [Canadian] federal privacy commissioner’s investigation into the Tim Hortons mobile app found that the app unnecessarily collected extensive amounts of data without obtaining adequate consent from users.

The commissioner’s report, which was published Wednesday morning, states that Tim Hortons collected granular location data for the purpose of targeted advertising and the promotion of its products, but that the company never used the data for those purposes.

“The consequences associated with the App’s collection of that data, the vast majority of which was collected when the App was not in use, represented a loss of Users’ privacy that was not proportional to the potential benefits Tim Hortons may have hoped to gain from improved targeted promotion of its coffee and associated products,” the report read.

The joint investigation was launched about two years ago by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada in conjunction with similar authorities in British Columbia, Quebec and Alberta. It came after reporting from the Financial Post found that the Tim Hortons app tracked users’ geolocation while users were not using the app.

According to a presentation to investors shared in May, the restaurant chain’s app has four million active users.

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Unsurprisingly, this was all because Hortons was using a third-party framework (called Radar) to do the location tracking, and that framework was very eager to collect the maximum possible location data (of course, to sell on). It seems a little unfair, though, that Hortons takes all the flak when the third party is just as, or arguably more, responsible.
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Federal Reserve report shows who’s actually using crypto and how • Reason

Andrew O’Sullivan:

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Every year, the Fed puts out a publication called the Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking. Since 2013, it has collected survey responses from American families about their finances, job situations, and abilities to cover unexpected expenses.

The report for 2021, “Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2021,” was just released in May. For the first time, the Fed included questions about cryptocurrency in the survey. The responses from the 11,874 participants of all ages, incomes, ethnicities, and educational levels show that depending on your state of life, you might be using digital currency in very different ways.

The new data on cryptocurrency usage is on page 46 of the report. First, it finds that 12% of participants, a little over 1,400, held or used cryptocurrency at some point over the previous year. If that extrapolates to the general American population, that suggests that almost 40 million Americans were involved in cryptocurrency last year.

This is in line with other estimates of American cryptocurrency usage; in 2021, for instance, the Pew Research Center reported that around 16% of Americans, or 53 million, had ever bought or held cryptocurrency. That these two estimates are so close suggests that Americans may be becoming more comfortable with cryptocurrency, since the Fed report only examined activities over the previous year.

Most of the participants who said they used cryptocurrency in 2021 did so as an investment. Some 11% of the survey participants reported such, then 3% reported using it as a payment mechanism. Then, 2% said they used cryptocurrency to purchase goods or services, while another 1% said they used it to send money to friends and family. Note that these numbers overlap—some people who used bitcoin as an investment also used it to transact.

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Those who transacted tend to be low income – possibly foreign remittances – and unbanked.
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Bank of England to take over collapsed stablecoin cryptocurrencies • Daily Telegraph

James Titcomb:

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The Bank of England will take over collapsed “stablecoin” companies to prevent a cryptocurrency crash hitting financial stability, under Treasury plans.

Stablecoin issuers would be placed into special administration by the Bank to protect consumers if they fail, a Government consultation said on Tuesday.

The proposals would mean companies offering stablecoins, cryptocurrencies designed to hold their value, would fall under similar rules as banks and other systemic institutions.

The Treasury plans to recognise stablecoins as a legal form of payment under efforts to make Britain a “crypto hub”.

Stablecoins’ backers say they offer potentially faster and more efficient payments than existing systems, but their rise has come under new scrutiny due to the collapse of Terra, a stablecoin designed to be linked to the dollar whose value collapsed in May.

The consultation proposed that the Bank would have the power to direct administrators for systemic “digital settlement asset” firms under the Financial Market Infrastructure Special Administration Regime.

This is more strict than the regime for payments companies, and requires administrators to pursue continued operations “ahead of the interests of its creditors” while giving the Bank of England “powers of direction and oversight over the administrator”.

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Quite the quid pro quo: stablecoins would have to be stable, which means all the wild swings in value would be obviated; but they’d be “safe” as a normal bank account (probably with the same limits on rescue, ie £30,000). Is this good or bad? It’s good for the normal person, but bad for the speculators. So, good.
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Netflix cracks down on password sharing, but early efforts in Peru are a mess • Rest of World

Jimena Ledgard and Andrew Deck:

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Rest of World spoke to over a dozen Netflix consumers in Peru, many of whom say that more than two months after the policy [to prevent password sharing among non-households] was first announced, they have not received uniform messaging around the new charges nor do they seem to be subject to the same policies.

For some, the price increase has been enough to convince them to cancel their Netflix accounts outright. Others continue to share their accounts across households without any notification of the policy change or have ignored the new rule without facing enforcement. Overall, the lack of clarity around how Netflix determines a “household” and inconsistent levying of the new charges on different customers have left subscribers in the trial confused, risking action from consumer regulators.

The varied user experiences with notifications and charges suggest Netflix may be testing different versions of the rollout on different customers or has not fully defined the terms of the policy. “They may end up causing issues with their so-far loosely inferred definition of a household,” said Isabelle Charney, a researcher for Ampere Analysis.

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Christina Warren had a thread musing on this story: the big problem is, how do you define a “household”? Two people who are always on the same IP? What if one is in the house but on mobile? What about when they’re on a train? Or in a hotel? How on earth do you define “household” in a world where we’re connected in so many ways in different places at different times, yet it’s the same “us”?
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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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