Start Up No.1839: Facebook criticised over India report, DARPA looks at open source, M2 MacBook Air reviewed, and more


Water levels on the Rhine river have fallen so low that barge traffic, essential for coal powered stations and chemicals production, is at risk. CC-licensed photo by Roger W on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Toot toot! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

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Facebook accused of ‘whitewashing’ India human rights report • Time

Billy Perrigo:

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Facebook’s parent company Meta has been accused of “whitewashing” a long-awaited report on its human rights impact in India, which the company released in a highly summarized form on Thursday, drawing fire from civil society groups.

TIME first reported in August 2020 that Facebook had commissioned the human rights impact assessment (HRIA), in an effort to determine its role in the spread of hate speech online. The report has been anticipated for nearly two years by rights groups who have long raised the alarm that Facebook is contributing to an erosion of civil liberties in India and to dangers faced by minorities.

Ankhi Das, Facebook’s most senior executive in India, resigned in October 2020 after the Wall Street Journal reported she had intervened to prevent the platform removing accounts of members of the country’s Hindu nationalist ruling party, some of whom had called for violence against India’s Muslim minority. India is Facebook’s largest market by users.

The India HRIA was carried out by an independent law firm, Foley Hoag, which interviewed more than 40 civil society stakeholders, activists, and journalists to complete the report. But Facebook drew criticism from rights groups on Thursday after it released its own four-page summary of the law firm’s findings that was almost bereft of any meaningful details.

Ritumbra Manuvie, an academic who was one of the civil society members interviewed by Foley Hoag for the report, said Facebook’s summary was a “cover up of its acute faultlines in India,” and showed that its “commitment to human rights is rather limited.”

The Real Facebook Oversight Board, a pressure organization made up of critics of the platform, said in a statement that the report was “a master-class in spin and obfuscation” and a “whitewashing [of] the religious violence fomented in India across [Meta’s] platforms.”

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Largest market by users, with a government that is very apt to censor content it doesn’t like. Facebook has a tiger by the tail there.
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The US military wants to understand the most important software on Earth • MIT Technology Review

Patrick Howell O’Neill:

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while the open-source movement has spawned a colossal ecosystem that we all depend on, we do not fully understand it, experts like [cybersecurity researcher and former NSA computer security scientist, Dave] Aitel argue. There are countless software projects, millions of lines of code, numerous mailing lists and forums, and an ocean of contributors whose identities and motivation are often obscure, making it hard to hold them accountable.

That can be dangerous. For example, hackers have quietly inserted malicious code into open-source projects numerous times in recent years. Back doors can long escape detection, and, in the worst case, entire projects have been handed over to bad actors who take advantage of the trust people place in open-source communities and code. Sometimes there are disruptions or even takeovers of the very social networks that these projects depend on. Tracking it all has been mostly—though not entirely—a manual effort, which means it does not match the astronomical size of the problem.

[DARPA program manager, Sergey] Bratus argues that we need machine learning to digest and comprehend the expanding universe of code—meaning useful tricks like automated vulnerability discovery—as well as tools to understand the community of people who write, fix, implement, and influence that code.

The ultimate goal is to detect and counteract any malicious campaigns to submit flawed code, launch influence operations, sabotage development, or even take control of open-source projects.

To do this, the researchers will use tools such as sentiment analysis to analyze the social interactions within open-source communities such as the Linux kernel mailing list, which should help identify who is being positive or constructive and who is being negative and destructive.

The researchers want insight into what kinds of events and behavior can disrupt or hurt open-source communities, which members are trustworthy, and whether there are particular groups that justify extra vigilance. These answers are necessarily subjective. But right now there are few ways to find them at all.

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(Thanks Gregory for the link.)
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Black Americans’ views on facial recognition use by police • Pew Research Center

Emily Vogels and Andrew Perrin:

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Black Americans are less likely than White or Hispanic Americans to believe that the widespread use of facial recognition technology will make policing fairer. Only 22% of Black adults say it will make policing fairer, while 29% say it will make policing less fair and about half say it will make no difference. Hispanic and White Americans are more likely than Black Americans to say the widespread use of this technology will make policing fairer (40% and 36% say this, respectively).

Like Americans overall, most Black Americans are skeptical about whether face recognition technology should be used as evidence to arrest people. A majority of Americans, including 74% of Black adults, say that if a facial recognition program said that someone was involved in a crime, it should not be good enough evidence for police to arrest them. Roughly a third or fewer of adults in each major racial or ethnic group say the technology should be good enough evidence, even if there was a small chance the program was wrong.

Black Americans are more likely than other Americans to see certain negative outcomes from the widespread use of face recognition technology by police. For example, nearly half of Black adults (48%) think police definitely would use facial recognition technology to monitor Black and Hispanic neighborhoods much more often than other neighborhoods. That is higher than the shares of Hispanic (37%) and White (18%) adults who say the same.

…The findings come as other studies have found that face recognition technology may be accurate for identifying White men but is less accurate when it comes to identifying others.

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Low Rhine water levels risk worsening Europe’s energy crunch • BNN Bloomberg

Todd Gillespie and Jack Wittels:

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A heatwave has reduced parts of the river, western Europe’s most important waterway, to the lowest seasonal levels in at least 15 years. That could affect the delivery of everything from coal to oil products as the region races to stockpile energy supplies ahead of winter.

“Low water levels on the Rhine mean that barges cannot load steam coal at full capacity” for power plants in Germany, said Guillaume Perret, founder of energy consultancy Perret Associates. “This could be a double whammy for the German utilities, as they were already facing a shortage of barges.”

For now, most utilities have ample stockpiles, though that could change if the situation runs into late next month, he added.

…The water level at Kaub, a bottleneck point near Frankfurt, is at the lowest seasonal level since at least 2007, according to data from the German waterways administration. The situation is similar near Duisburg and Dusseldorf.

Dry spells occasionally restrict traffic on the Rhine, forcing barges to carry smaller loads. A barge with 2,500 tons of capacity loading diesel-type fuel in the Rotterdam region sailing beyond Kaub can only take on about 1,600 tons of product, maritime brokerage Riverlake said in a report this week.

“If there are low water levels in combination with limited diesel supplies, some storage tanks in Germany could run out, it happened before,” said Jelle Vreeman, a senior broker at the company. “Significant barge capacity is already taken off the market” because of the demand to cover deliveries during summer, he added.

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Barges are also essential for shipping chemicals, one of Germany’s biggest businesses. And there are nuclear power stations which use the Rhine’s water for cooling. If the drought continues, winter fuel stocks might be affected. (Coal-powered stations, blah.)

A year ago, people were dying in floods on the Rhine. Variability is the biggest variable.
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Apple MacBook Air M2 (2022) review: a whole new Air-a • The Verge

Dan Seifert:

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Despite the lower performance in benchmark tests compared to the M2 MacBook Pro, the M2 Air didn’t present any issues for me when I used it to do my regular knowledge worker job. I was able to use dozens of tabs in multiple windows of Chrome, bounce between multiple Spaces with Slack, email, and other apps, take endless Zoom calls, and play media in the background while I continued to get my work done without missing a beat. It also didn’t heat up on the bottom panel or under the keyboard during my daily workload. For the tasks that a thin-and-light computer like the Air is ideal for — productivity work, browsing the web, video calls, watching TV shows or movies, writing term papers, etc. — the M2 is more than capable.

It’s also totally fine for the occasional light photo and video editing, especially if you’re using Apple’s Photos or iMovie apps for those tasks. On my review unit with 8GB of RAM, I was able to saturate the memory and force the system to swap memory to the SSD with my daily workload, but thanks to the speedy enough storage, that didn’t slow me down. If I had been using a base model with that single-chip 256GB of storage, the story might be different, however.

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8GB wasn’t enough for an M1 device, so can’t think it would really meet the needs of the M2. Everyone’s really happy with it, judging by the reviews.
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Netflix teams up with Microsoft on cheaper streaming with adverts • The Guardian

Mark Sweney:

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The streaming platform first announced plans to launch a cheaper service – giving subscribers the chance to pay less in return for viewing ads – in April after reporting the first loss of subscribers in a decade, wiping almost $60bn (£51bn) off its market value.

Greg Peters, the Netflix chief operating officer, said: “Microsoft has the proven ability to support all our advertising needs as we work together to build a new ad-supported offering.

“More importantly, Microsoft offered the flexibility to innovate over time on both the technology and sales side, as well as strong privacy protections for our members.”

Netflix’s surprise move to belatedly follow rivals such as Hulu, HBO Max and Paramount+ by launching an ad-supported package this year is expected to precede the announcement next week of a further loss of 2 million global subscribers in the three months to the end of June.

“It’s very early days and we have much to work through,” Peters said. “But our long-term goal is clear. More choice for consumers and a premium, better-than-linear TV brand experience for advertisers.”

Netflix had reportedly been in talks with a number of partners to deliver advertising sales, including Google, and Sky owner Comcast’s NBCUniversal, before signing up with Microsoft.

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Would not have guessed at Microsoft as the ad provider. It essentially wrote down the value of aQuantive, the online ad firm it bought for $6.3bn, to zero ten years ago.
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Crypto crash drags lender Celsius Network into bankruptcy • WSJ

Alexander Gladstone, Vicky Ge Huang and Soma Biswas:

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The chapter 11 filing in New York follows weeks of market speculation about Celsius, which built itself into one of the biggest cryptocurrency lenders on a pitch that it was less risky than a bank, and with better returns for its customers. But it overextended itself offering lofty yields to crypto depositors and making large loans backed by little collateral, leaving itself little cushion in the event of a market downturn.

The company was caught in the chain reaction rippling across crypto markets following selloffs in digital currencies this year, and it froze withdrawals, swaps, and transfers last month. Founded in 2017 by entrepreneur Alex Mashinsky, Celsius was valued at more than $3bn last fall in its latest venture round.

“This is the right decision for our community and company,” Mr. Mashinsky said Wednesday. “I am confident that when we look back at the history of Celsius, we will see this as a defining moment.”

Some members of Celsius’s board of directors said the suspension of withdrawals was a “difficult but necessary step” to stabilize the company’s business and protect its customers.

“Without a pause, the acceleration of withdrawals would have allowed certain customers—those who were first to act—to be paid in full while leaving others behind to wait for Celsius to harvest value from illiquid or longer-term assets before they receive a recovery,” those directors said Wednesday.

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Leaves 100,000 creditors (including other crypto funds): had $4.3bn in assets but, oh dear, $5.5bn in liabilities at the time of filing. Amazing that a company offering 18% interest rates in a time when central bank rates were less than 1% might crash and burn, do you think?
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Theranos’s Ramesh ‘Sunny’ Balwani found guilty on all 12 fraud counts • WSJ

Heather Somerville and Meghan Bobrowsky:

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A federal jury convicted Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, the former top lieutenant to Theranos Inc. founder Elizabeth Holmes, on all 12 charges that he helped perpetuate a yearslong fraud scheme at the blood-testing startup.

The verdict is the second conviction against Theranos leadership and comes six months after a jury found Ms. Holmes guilty of fraud; it secures another major victory for the U.S. government, which brought the case against the pair in 2018. It brings to conclusion one of Silicon Valley’s most notorious startup implosions, which saw nearly $1bn of investor money evaporate after revelations that the company delivered inaccurate blood-test results to patients, including for life-threatening conditions, and Ms. Holmes and Mr. Balwani lied about its proprietary technology.

Mr. Balwani, Theranos’s former president and chief operating officer, was charged with 10 counts of wire fraud and two counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. His case, like Ms. Holmes’s, marked a rare prosecution of a technology executive, and served as a referendum on startups taking the culture of “fake it until you make it” too far. Mr. Balwani faces up to 20 years in prison for each count for which he was found guilty, but former prosecutors said such a stiff sentence is rare in white-collar cases.

Mr. Balwani’s lawyers argued he wasn’t in charge at Theranos, and the responsibility for the company rested with Ms. Holmes. He used investor money as promised, to build the company, they said, and invested his own money to help the startup succeed. Mr. Balwani’s verdict shows how the government, in its second time prosecuting the case against the Theranos executives, appeared to have buttoned up its arguments following Ms. Holmes’s trial, which had a more mixed result.

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This was last week, but sentencing won’t be until November. Unlike Holmes, he didn’t testify in his own defence – though probably it wouldn’t have made much difference.
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Working all day in VR does not increase productivity • Inavate

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A new study from Germany has found that working in virtual reality does not increase productivity, comfort, or wellbeing, but does say the report will help identify opportunities for improving the experience of working in VR in the future.

The project was heded up by Dr Jens Grubert, a specialist in human-computer interaction at Coburg University, Germany.

It involved 16 people who had to work for five days, eight hours a week (with 45 mins lunch break), in VR. The participants used Meta Quest 2 VR headsets combined with a Logitech K830 keyboard and Chrome Remote Desktop. The equipment was chosen specifically to create a realistic scenario of what users would be using in today’s world.

Participants were also asked specific VR-related questions (‘do you feel sick?’ or ‘are your eyes starting to hurt?’). The research team also monitored the worker’s heartbeats and typing speed.

The published paper, entitled ‘Quantifying the Effects of Working in VR for One Week‘ found “concerning levels of simulator sickness, below average usability ratings and two participants dropped out on the first day using VR, due to migraine, nausea and anxiety.”

The study found that, as expected, VR results in significantly worse ratings across most measures. Each test subject scored their VR working experience versus working in a physical environment, many felt their task load had increased, on average by 35%. Frustration was by 42%, the ‘negative affect’ was up 11%, and anxiety rose by 19%.

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Wonder how this news is going to go down when it flashes across the visors of Mark Zuckerberg and Nick Clegg, assuming they’re not at the moment puking over a toilet. Though data finding that using VR systems for extended periods leaves significant proportions of people feeling queasy is longstanding – it goes back at least to the early 1990s when Atari was looking at launching the Jaguar VR headset.
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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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