Start Up No.1977: TikTok fined £12.7m over kids’ data, the trouble with Blurred Lines, Wordle slows, Lawson’s oil-fed boom, and more

The iPod shuffle was the ultimate expression of our modern love of playing songs out of order – because we like being surprised. CC-licensed photo by Cristiano Betta 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.

On Friday, there’s another post due at the Social Warming Substack at about 0845 UK time.

A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. On Mastodon: Observations and links welcome.

TikTok fined £12.7m for illegally processing children’s data • The Guardian

Alex Hern and Aletha Adu:


TikTok has been fined £12.7m for illegally processing the data of 1.4 million children under 13 who were using its platform without parental consent, Britain’s data watchdog said.

The information commissioner said the China-owned video app had done “very little, if anything” to check who was using the platform and remove underage users, despite internal warnings the firm was flouting its own terms and conditions.

“Our findings were that TikTok were not doing enough to prevent under-13s accessing their platform, they were not doing enough when they became aware of under-13s to get rid of them, and they were not doing enough to detect under-13s on there,” John Edwards told the Guardian on Tuesday. “They assure us that they are now doing more.”

The fine from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) comes weeks after the app was banned from UK government phones amid security concerns. It is fast becoming a flashpoint for the UK’s handling of big tech and Chinese influence.

After the announcement of the fine, one of the largest the watchdog has given, Rishi Sunak was accused of moving too slowly in taking action against TikTok – and was called “naive for assuming TikTok could ever regulate itself”.

UK data protection law does not have a strict ban on children using the internet but requires organisations that use the personal data of children to obtain consent from their parents or carers. TikTok itself bans those under 13 in its terms and conditions. The failure to enforce age limits led to “up to 1.4 million UK children” under 13 using the platform as of 2020, the ICO estimated.


Social media firms never, never, ever enforce age rules. Because it’s so much more profitable not to.
unique link to this extract

The mixed-up history of the shuffle button • The Verge

Natalie Weiner:


It’s not clear who initially decided to integrate that new technology of randomness into music. “In the first Philips player, shuffle was not available…Which company came first? I do not know,” Kees Schouhamer Immink, a pioneering Philips scientist who worked on the earliest CD players, told me by email. But very soon after the frontiers of music consumption shifted from analog to digital with the introduction of those first CD players in 1982, random playback was touted as one of the device’s best features. (There were sophisticated tape players that also had random playback functions by the early ’80s, but every selection had to be preprogrammed by the user — plus, the analog nature of tape playback would make the time between tracks fairly significant.)

“Do the Sony Shuffle!” shouted one 1986 advertisement for the Sony CDP-45. “It makes old CDs new!” But what anticipated the contemporary shuffle experience was the introduction of players that held multiple CDs; rather than just hearing a CD you owned play in an order you couldn’t predict, you could put a few that you liked together and, well, shuffle them, replicating the leanback experience of listening to the radio (or, as was still quite new at that time, a live DJ) without hearing any of the stuff you didn’t like. “Having a Sony CDP-C10 Disc Jockey in your home really is like having your own personal disc jockey,” another advertisement put it. “Ten hours of uninterrupted music enjoyment for hassle-free parties or background music in restaurants or shops.” 

…Shuffle satisfied the human attraction to novelty and surprise. With randomness, there is possibility: it makes sense, then, that the first literal shuffle buttons were on ’70s-era handheld blackjack games for shuffling the virtual deck. When you put a playlist, or your library, on shuffle, you might get lucky and hear exactly the thing you want to hear with the added satisfaction of not knowing it was coming.


Fabulous idea for a feature. That paragraph above captures what we love about shuffle: the surprise of the familiar yet unexpected. (Why shuffle an album you’ve never heard before?) It’s the same thing for the brain as slot machines.
unique link to this extract

“Blurred Lines,” harbinger of doom • Pitchfork

Jayson Greene:


Indeed, the implications of a “Blurred Lines” loss [in its copyright defence against the Marvin Gaye estate] was frightening enough to spur an amicus brief that included John Oates, Hans Zimmer, and Rivers Cuomo among its 200 signatories. “By eliminating any meaningful standard for drawing the line between permissible inspiration and unlawful copying, the judgment is certain to stifle creativity and impede the creative process,” read the brief. It was not enough. The appeals court ruled again in favor of the Gaye Estate, and Williams and Thicke were ordered to pay $5.3 million in damages in July 2015. 

The fallout from the decision was incalculable. By demonstrating the value of a high-profile lawsuit against a massive pop song, the “Blurred Lines” case helped underline the potential financial upside to owning catalogs like Gaye’s. If the stampede of venture capitalists competing to snap up beloved artist catalogs—from Otis Redding to James Brown to Smokey Robinson—proceeded from a specific assumption, it’s that whoever owns the assets gets to demand payment. 

Now, when pop songs are recorded, they routinely pass through a forensic musicological analysis for any possible similarities to other songs, old or new, often with preemptive songwriter credits handed out as a result. A much more common practice, seen everywhere from hits by Nicki Minaj to Saweetie to Bebe Rexha and Jack Harlow, is to sample a large chunk of a beloved song wholesale, which ensures bigger checks to publishers and downplays the threat of litigation.


This is a long but very worthwhile read about a song you may have forgotten about, even though it was colossal 10 years ago. Notably, it shows how everyone who was involved with it became in some way tainted by it.
unique link to this extract

Google flags apps made by popular Chinese e-commerce giant as malware • TechCrunch

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai:


Google has flagged several apps made by a Chinese e-commerce giant as malware, alerting users who had them installed, and suspended the company’s official app.

In the last couple of weeks, multiple Chinese security researchers have accused Pinduoduo, a rising e-commerce giant that boasts almost 800 million active users, of making apps for Android that contain malware designed to monitor users.

Ed Fernandez, a Google spokesperson, said that “off-Play versions of this app that have been found to contain malware have been enforced on via Google Play Protect,” referring to apps that are not on Google Play.

Effectively, Google has set Google Play Protect, its Android security mechanism, to block users from installing these malicious apps, and warn those who have them already installed, prompting them to uninstall the apps.

Fernandez added that Google has suspended Pinduoduo’s official app on the Play Store “for security concerns while we continue our investigation.”

Requesting anonymity, a security researcher alerted TechCrunch of the claims against the apps, and said their analysis also found that the apps were exploiting several zero-day exploits to hack users.


Unsurprisingly, Pinduoduo denies the claims. Not blocked in China, because Google Play isn’t available in China (Google is blocked there; it’s all open source Android).
unique link to this extract

Have we fallen out of love with Wordle? • BBC News

Harry Low:


In October 2021, about 5,000 people visited Brooklyn-based Mr Wardle’s site. When the alumnus of Royal Holloway, University of London sold up to the NYT on 31 January 2022, the monthly figure stood at 45m.

Wordle was by now spawning daily updates in chat groups (including one featuring Hollywood stars Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Bradley Cooper), fuelling the competitive instincts of families and friends and prompting stern warnings about the bad etiquette of giving spoilers.

It even helped to end a 17-hour hostage ordeal and became the most Googled word of 2022.

Head of games at the New York Times Jonathan Knight (longest streak: 48) says there’s still a huge interest in Wordle although Google Trends data suggests it is now a third as popular as it was at its peak.

“I can’t disclose specific numbers but tens of millions of people play every week,” he says. “We are still seeing a pretty high level of audience engagement and I would say we’re pleased with it. It’s obviously come down off of its viral craze as any viral game will, and games that go viral like that don’t come along that often.

“They often sort of pop and drop – and this one definitely hasn’t.”


Hard to figure, but tens of millions per week vs 45m per month sounds like it’s shrinking down to a hardcore group. Though quite a large one.
unique link to this extract

Nigel Lawson’s economic ‘success’ was an oil-fuelled illusion • openDemocracy

Adam Ramsay:


By the end of the 1970s… North Sea oil started to come on stream. By the mid-1980s, when Lawson was chancellor, 10% of annual government revenue, or £18bn a year, came directly from North Sea oil.

Just as significantly, the oil boom played a vital role in delivering the Big Bang in the City of London, for which Lawson usually gets both credit and blame, with money flooding in to invest in Britain’s new hydrocarbon glut. Of course, his radical deregulations played a role, too, allowing banking whiz kids to build these new investments into the vast credit-card houses which came tumbling down in 2008. But without the oil, it’s hard to see why that money would have been flowing in in the first place.

As the US Department for Energy said in 1989, “the growth of North Sea oil revenues is the most important fiscal development in the British economy in the 1980s”.

How the revenue from that oil was spent – squandered on under-priced privatisations and tax cuts for the rich, buying Tory election victories rather than investing in long-term prosperity – is the real Lawson legacy we should be talking about. But, outside Scotland, that conversation always seems to be missed.

Not by Lawson himself, of course. He seemed to retain a gratitude to the oil industry over the decades after he resigned as chancellor. A leading figure in the movement to deny the science of climate change, he led the climate-denying lobby group the Global Warming Policy Foundation, using his significant media presence and reputation across Tory Britain to sow doubt about atmospheric physics and delay much-needed action on climate change.

When we remember him, it shouldn’t be for the endlessly repeated false history about his time as chancellor. It should be for his own lies, since then, and the damage they have done.


If you need persuading of this point, the Institute of Fiscal Studies has a helpful graph showing North Sea revenues as a proportion of UK GDP over time.
unique link to this extract

Groupon, down 99.4% from its IPO, gets a new CEO • Techcrunch

Ingrid Lunden:


A dozen years ago, Groupon shot to fame popularizing the online group buying format, confidently rejecting a $6bn acquisition offer from Google and instead going public with a $17.8bn market cap. The company today says it has 14 million active users, but almost consistently for the last decade, its financial position has been in a slow decline — with stagnation in its core business model, little success in efforts to diversify, declining revenues and ongoing losses.

And today comes the latest chapter in that story. The Chicago-based company, which today has a market cap of just $103m (a drop of 99.4% from its public market debut), has appointed Dusan Senkypl, a current board member, as interim CEO. Senkypl will run the company. From the Czech Republic.

…Groupon specifically has faced a host of challenges over the years. The very concept of group buying is structured on the concept of hype, which may have been a fateful, less-than-promising starting point. Even early on, and despite the predictions of it being a threat to Google and Amazon, others debated whether it could rightly be considered a “tech” company. But beyond this, Groupon — despite making more than 40 acquisitions, including a host of clones across international markets, plus a number of interesting e-commerce and fintech businesses — failed to find other hooks to diversify itself.

Meanwhile, a key marketing route for the company — email — died a small death when Google changed how subscription emails were categorized (and could be more easily ignored).


It would be very easy to see this as the spurned buyer taking action to squash the annoying would-be rival, wouldn’t it.
unique link to this extract

‘Recent photo’ of Julian Assange was actually generated by AI • Full Fact

Grace Rahman:


There are some clues the image is not a genuine photograph.

Guillaume Brossard, co-founder of the French website Hoaxbuster pointed out that Mr Assange’s close allies, including his wife, are active on Twitter but had not shared the image.

Mr Brossard also noted that details in the hair, ear and unmatching sleeve colours of the image did not look realistic.

The image also has a prominent watermark saying “photo property of ‘E’”. Using Google to search for the image, the earliest instance of the image appearing online comes from a Twitter user posting it on 30 March. This user has previously referred to themselves as E in other seemingly AI-generated images.

German tabloid newspaper Bild interviewed the user, who told the publication he had made the photo of Julian Assange using Midjourney, an AI programme which allows people to generate images using prompts. 

Midjourney was also the app used to create fake images of the Pope wearing a puffer coat and former US President Donald Trump apparently being arrested that recently went viral. 

The Twitter user who created the image of Mr Assange told Bild: “My intention was to create an image based on the documented happenings around Julian.”

He added: “It was designed to evoke a visceral response and to accurately represent what the public could not otherwise bear witness to.”


Deepfakes 1 (the pope), establishment 1.
unique link to this extract

Police call handlers used fake system for eight years • BBC News

Mark Daly:


One of Scotland’s main police control rooms used a fake system to manipulate response time targets for eight years, according to documents seen by the BBC.
Thousands of calls to the Bilston Glen control room were allocated to a fictitious call sign known as DUMY.

Internal systems would register that the calls had been passed to officers – but instead they were parked on a list.

This meant a police vehicle would not have been dispatched quickly to calls which had been judged as high priority. It appears that many calls were not attended at all.

The practice, according to official police documents, was designed to “provide artificial levels of incident management performance”.

The documents reveal that the DUMY call sign was used at Bilston Glen in Loanhead, Midlothian, from at least 2007 until the system was discovered in 2015 and stopped.


On Twitter, it was pointed out that this is a classic example of Goodhart’s Law: “when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure”. (Charles Goodhart was an economist; he developed the idea in a 1975 article about monetary policy, but we’re all living with the effects all the time.)
unique link to this extract

• 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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.