Benedict's Newsletter: No. 335

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✏️ My essays

The VR Winter. Link

COVID and cascading collapses. Link

 

🗞 News

Facebook and content moderation. Facebook has named the 20 members of the oversight board that can take final decisions on content moderation.

  1. The list includes a bunch of law professors, the former PM of Denmark and Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of the Guardian in the UK. These are 'the great and the good', not people who are beholden to Facebook, but on the other hand Zuckerberg still runs the company.
  2. The problem they're trying to solve is that it's easy to say 'take down the bad stuff', and easy to look at the extremes, but there are a very large number of cases where you have to judge new ideas, behaviours and models of speech for several billion people across countries with very varying political cultures and traditions of how to define free speech. 'But the US constitution says!' is not a useful answer here - these are hard and often new problems, and the 2.3bn Facebook users who live outside the USA give no particular status to American legal documents from the 18th century.
  3. In 2015 most people in tech would have said 'we're just a platform' and 'free speech' and walked away - now pretty much everyone understands that there's a need to take some control, but if you're a 35-year-old product manager in Menlo Park, are you comfortable making decisions about political debate in Malaysia or Argentina? There are lots of questions here that no-one has had to think about before - these are not newspapers (or restaurants!), or phone companies. Hence the idea for a group of people with some qualification and legitimacy to take views. A cynic would say this gives FB deniability - 'it's not our decision!' but then again maybe it shouldn't be.
  4. Meanwhile, there will be a big operational challenge - how do these people who have never made product in their lives create scalable, repeatable rules that can be applied semi-automatically to the 100bn pieces of content shared each day on Facebook? Link

Contact tracing confusion. Part of an exit from lockdown is testing and contact tracing, and part of that is using smartphones to automate some of this, even across contacts you might not know about  - 'you were in a coffee shop and someone else there then tested positive'. It's mostly agreed that the right technical layer is for each phone to broadcast a local bluetooth beacon and listen for other nearby beacons, so each phone builds a list of beacons that it might have exposed or been exposed to. If you get a positive test, there is a record of which beacons were near you while you might have been spreading. After that, things get very complicated.

  1. Apple & Google are building a beacon system to launch this month that will work on every smartphone (on an opt-in basis) but be anonymous, won't collect location and won't have a central record of what matches are found: all the matching is done on the phones. 
  2. Some countries argue they need (or at least want) that data and are building their own apps (or anyway started building before Apple/Google announced their project). Collecting that data has privacy issues and might lead to weaker adoption of an app, and it's debated how much you really need it, as opposed to just testing way more.
  3. iOS & Android limit apps from running continuously in the background and from running when the screen is off, for privacy/security and battery life reasons - this would normally stop an app from collecting and broadcasting beacons reliably. Their own project bypasses this but others cannot: some other projects (such as the UK's NHS) claim to have worked around this but it's not yet clear how reliably.
  4. The beacons from different projects are not interchangeable, so this doesn't work if people travel; the Apple/Google project uses one kind of beacon for all phones globally (that have opted in) but still has national databases of which beacons relate to people who tested positive (this is anonymised), and your phone will only talk to your home country database, so those will need to be interconnected.
  5. It gets more complicated after that, as, for example, countries change plan and join and leave different projects (the UK is testing its own app but is also investigating using the Apple/Google system)

This all sounds a bit like the Schleswig-Holstein Question ('only three people have ever understood it...'), but much of it can get sorted out in principle. At a higher level, there is a thick layer of chauvinism from parts of the EU ('we want our own solution!', which is how a ten year old talks), the classic tech policy conflict between privacy and other equally important policy aims, and global tech companies having to make global product decisions in the face of conflicting national government demands. For Apple and Google to build a decentralised and anonymous system that doesn't collect location is a policy decision, not an engineering decision. I suspect it's driven by what would happen if they built the alternative - what happens then when Chinese, Iranian or Turkish police order their citizens to enable this continuous non-anonymous contact tracing system we asked for? Link

Amazon discontent? Tim Bray, a senior exec in AWS, resigned and wrote a very angry post about what he has read about how the logistics side of Amazon is managing safety for workers there. Link

Big layoffs from Uber and Airbnb, as the lockdown has a very obvious effect on their businesses. 25% of staff at Airbnb. The lockdown is accelerating change that was already happening in some industries (such as mass-market retail) but also cutting across all companies in some industries regardless of how well-fitted each one was for digital.  Link

 

🔮 Reading

The Uk advertisers' trade body commissioned a study of the ad-tech chain and found that only about 50% of billings actually goes to publishers, and around 15% was untraceable. I'm shocked - shocked... Link

The Uk wrote a detailed blog post on the security model behind its centralised-but-anonymous contact tracing app (Link) and put the code on Github. (Link)

Interesting profile of Sony's CEO. Remember when Sony and the other Japanese consumer electronics companies were going to take over the world? Sony and Matsushita (now Panasonic) piled into content on the idea that 'content is king' (it isn't), refighting the last war (VHS v Betamax), just as the focus of tech moved up the stack from hardware to software, leaving them behind completely. Today Sony owns a movie studio and the biggest record label and gets zero strategic value from them for the rest of the company. Meanwhile its image sensor business has 50% market share and dominates the high end, and yet it missed smartphones. Now, rather like Microsoft, it's moving on from dreams of world domination and making a path as just another big tech company. Link

Alan Rusbridger on joining the Facebook oversight body. Link

How the lock-down has affected dating apps. In 2017 40% (yes, forty percent) of new relationships in the USA started in an app - I wonder how that's changed this year. Link

 

😮 Interesting things

Bookcase Credibility. Link

Zoom backgrounds from artists. Link

And the BBC has images of several hundred empty sets from vintage programmes.  Link

 

📊 Stats

Sandvine: 15% of global internet traffic is Youtube and 11% is Netflix. Link

 

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