Benedict's Newsletter: No. 342


This is a weekly newsletter of what I've seen in tech and thought was interesting.

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✏️ My essays

What comes after Zoom? Link


🗞 News

Content moderation, again. This argument rolls on and on: this week a campaign to boycott Facebook until it 'moderates' more political / controversial / challenging content picked up some steam, with a bunch of corporate advertisers joining in. This includes some consciously activist brands, such as Ben & Jerry's and Patagonia, but also Unilever (which actually owns Ben & Jerry's 🤫), and some are saying they will suspend all social media advertising for a while. A cynic would say they're all slashing their ad budgets anyway and this is a convenient excuse and some free purpose-washing; a financial analyst would also point out that something like three quarters of FB advertising is actually from SMEs, and though Unilever is one of the word's biggest advertisers it's a tiny share of FB revenue. This is all true, but not what matters. The internet in general and social in particular is a new sphere, where speech works differently to newspapers or TV, or indeed to a town square or a restaurant. Asking if Facebook is a publisher or a platform is like asking if TV is more like a book or a news - it's neither. It's a new thing. Like all other spheres, speech online has a bunch of hard questions that do not necessarily have easy answers, but unlike TV, newspapers or a bar we do not have a settled consensus on how to think about this. These arguments will keep coming and keep getting louder. Link

Facebook U-Turn. After taking a stand and refusing to take down problematic posts by politicians on the grounds that they're newsworthy and that people should know (and that the media report them), Facebook is now taking the opposite stand and says that it will label such posts as 'bad', which is what Twitter also said recently. This might be a reaction to the boycott above (though actually I doubt it) but it also reflects the ever-more heated and abnormal nature of US politics. I think there are more policy changes coming - as above, this is a new sphere. No-one knows where the Overton Window is anymore. Link

WhatsApp payments. Last week WhatsApp announced it was launching payments in Brazil: this week the Brazilian central bank suspended the launch pending regulatory scrutiny. Oops. Link 

Amazon self-driving. As rumoured recently, Amazon is buying Zoox, one of the larger indie autonomous car companies. We are clearly going into an autonomy winter: machine learning moved it out of science fiction and allowed very rapid early progress, but solving the last 10% is turning out to be 90% or more of the effort and there's a lot of consolidation going on. Why Amazon? It has an obvious interest in lowering the cost of last-mile delivery, but autonomy has limited value here - you still need a human to take the parcel from the street to your door, and the press release talks about ride-hailing. But it has the capital and the computing capacity, and whatever happens here, it probably needs to have the option value.  Link

EU tech regulation. A substantial speech from the EU competition commissioner on the challenges of competition policy and tech. I don't actually think many of the things that we worry about online are competition issues (this is not why teenaged girls look at images of self-harm on Instagram, for example), but there are self-evidently substantial challenges to competition theory in dealing with markets that change so quickly and offer so many products for free instead of pushing up prices. Link

Amazon and fakes. Amazon is establishing a dedicated unit to deal with counterfeit products, especially on Marketplace. This has been a very long-running problem, gets a lot of complaints from brands (causing some of them to just refuse to sell there) and damages the user experience - it's not good for Amazon if you can't trust what you buy on Amazon (and buying 'on' Amazon versus 'from' Amazon is not a distinction many consumers make). There is also, of course, a 'give the regulators something' angle here. Link

Google data retention. Last year Google created an option to auto-delete your usage history after 18 months: now it's turning this on by default. Link

Apple device tracking. A small but very interesting story. For the last couple of years, Apple devices have had access to an anonymous P2P wireless mesh system, so if you lose a device you can try to get a location for it even if it doesn't have a wireless connection of its own, if any other Apple device nearby, owned by a stranger, has seen it. Apple has been rumoured to be planning to sell a small (key-ring size) bluetooth dongle that can use this, so you can put it in e.g. a bag or on a bike to find it if it goes missing. Tile, which makes a stand-alone product that tries to do the same thing (dongle, plus a network of everyone with the app on their phone), has complained that this rumoured Apple plan is unfair competition. Now, however, Apple is now going to open this up to developers, so anyone can make a dongle that connects to the Apple mesh. Ironically this might be bad for Tile: Apple's network will be way bigger than Tile's, and tracking dongles using it would be commodities and Tile's network would not longer matter much. Be careful what you wish for. Link

Microsoft is shutting down its retail stores. Retail has been a clear and important part of Apple's strategy, where the stores were a self-funded marketing operation. It was always hard to see what purpose it served for Microsoft, given how different the underlying business model is. (Also, check out the headline Microsoft chose.) Link

California as the US privacy regulator. As if California's privacy act CCPA hasn't been enough of a vague, chaotic mess, the people behind it now want another law, but this time as a ballot initiative (and they have the signatures to put it on the form), which would make it much harder to fix all the inevitable problems of drafting and definitions and leave it unable to reflect any future changes to the market. The US needs privacy laws, but this is not the way. Link

When face recognition is wrong. The NY Times has a story of someone arrested because face recognition wrongly matched him to a CCTV image of a shoplifter. There will be more stories like this: machine learning in general and face recognition in particular can only give probabilistic results, and ML systems trained on skewed data with skewed assumptions will produce skewed results. Part of what's interesting here is that the safeguards half-worked at each step: the software clearly said to treat the result with caution, the cops did a photo line-up rather than going straight to an arrest, and as soon as they got him in a room they realised they had the wrong man. But, they still arrested someone who doesn't look anything like the picture because 'the computer was wrong'. This is partly an engineering problem, but mostly a training and process problem. Link ($)


🔮 Reading

Jonathon Goldberg gives a semi analyst view of Apple Silicon. Link

Steven Sinofsky, who used to run Microsoft Office and then Windows, looks at the planning and organisation, and trade-offs, of Apple shifting its entire platform away from Intel, and contrasts that with what Microsoft could and could not do differently. Link

Apple is systematically demolishing the mobile ad-tech stack? More analysis needed here. Link

The FT has an in-depth story on the fiasco of the UK's contact-tracing app. Partly, they tried to do things that Apple explicitly blocks on iOS (for good reasons!), and partly, they tried to do an app that did far too many things far too quickly. Link ($)

Google has two separate blog posts (clearly aimed at the competition regulation debate) explaining in detail how money flows from advertisers, through its systems, to publishers. Links: DisplayNews publishers

Rakuten is building a cellular network in Japan based on software and commodity hardware. So interesting. Link

Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer on Trump, trolls and surviving the COVID-19 crisis. Link

Not sure I agree but worth thinking about: 'Google blew a ten-year lead'. Link


😮 Interesting things

RIP Milton Glaser. ❤️ Link

Digital Mycenae. Link


📊 Stats

The EU produces statistics on take-down of illegal and harmful content by the major social media companies. Interesting graphs. Guess who does worst. Link (PDF)

Ofcom, the UK TMT regulator, has a fascinating annual study out on online behaviour. messaging, video calls in lockdown, games... Link


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