Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

The Time Britons Spend on the World Wide Web

John Carr, a member of the UK Council on Child Internet Safety:

Amazing statistics emerged last week courtesy of a body called WARC which presents itself as Your global authority on advertising and media effectiveness.

WARC was publicising a study carried out by Verto Analytics according to which, between them, Google and Facebook account for 25% of all of the time spent online by adult UK internet users. One might imagine the proportion in respect of children was likely to be higher but there is no information on that point.

In this context Google was represented by search, Gmail and YouTube. They took one in six (17%) of every UK minute. This amounted to the equivalent of 42.7 million days per month.

I haven’t found Verto’s study so I’m not sure what methodology they used to measure time spent on different websites. Even so, these are staggering numbers. I imagine the proportion of time spent on Google and Facebook properties would be similar in Canada, for example, and I suspect the proportion of internet traffic that travels — in some way — through infrastructure controlled by American companies would be far higher. The images on bbc.com, for example, are served from the ichef.bbci.co.uk domain, which is pointed to an Akamai server — Akamai is based in Massachusetts. Even the British government’s website isn’t immune: it serves images from assets.publishing.service.gov.uk, which is pointed to Fastly, based in San Francisco.

As I wrote yesterday, I see an inherent danger in having so much of our web in the hands of relatively few, very large American firms, for two main reasons: first, the lack of competition gives these companies outsized and largely-unaccountable power; and, second, they’re governed by American laws. There’s nothing inherently wrong with laws being American, of course, but the 2013 revelations of NSA spying, fears about what a Donald Trump presidency would mean for technology companies, freedom of speech questions with regard to neo-Nazis, and a failure to meaningfully regulate mega-mergers are all warnings about what it means to put the ostensibly World Wide Web in largely American hands — or, indeed, in the hands of any one country.

Privately Public

Cloudflare made an exception to their policy of neutrality yesterday and terminated any relationship they had with the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi news website. RationalWiki has a good primer but, as you’d expect, even the selected excerpts they’ve cited are vile — discretion is advised.

Matthew Prince, Cloudflare CEO:

Our terms of service reserve the right for us to terminate users of our network at our sole discretion. The tipping point for us making this decision was that the team behind Daily Stormer made the claim that we were secretly supporters of their ideology.

Our team has been thorough and have had thoughtful discussions for years about what the right policy was on censoring. Like a lot of people, we’ve felt angry at these hateful people for a long time but we have followed the law and remained content neutral as a network. We could not remain neutral after these claims of secret support by Cloudflare.

Now, having made that decision, let me explain why it’s so dangerous.

Prince argues that any of the companies that help provide web services, like Cloudflare, set a precedent if they begin regulating what they host or transmit. He doesn’t like being able to wield that kind of power, and remains convinced that Cloudflare should have a neutral stance with what it is used for.

I firmly disagree — regardless of the Daily Stormer’s phony claims of affiliation with Cloudflare, I think Prince should have discontinued their relationship with them long ago.1 The Daily Stormer has previously been involved in the intimidation of a British politician with Holocaust-related messages, even going so far as to provide instructions to readers. Their users engaged in targeted harassment of a Jewish Congressional candidate from California. This isn’t politics — it’s abuse. Prince and Cloudflare clearly disagree with what the site was publishing, but that stance was undermined when they provided business services to these neo-Nazi assholes.2

K-Sue Park in the New York Times, in an op-ed about the ACLU’s legal support of the right for neo-Nazis to demonstrate in Charlottesville:

I volunteered with the A.C.L.U. as a law student in 2011, and I respect much of its work. But it should rethink how it understands free speech. By insisting on a narrow reading of the First Amendment, the organization provides free legal support to hate-based causes. More troubling, the legal gains on which the A.C.L.U. rests its colorblind logic have never secured real freedom or even safety for all.

For marginalized communities, the power of expression is impoverished for reasons that have little to do with the First Amendment. Numerous other factors in the public sphere chill their voices but amplify others.

Most obviously, the power of speech remains proportional to wealth in this country, despite the growth of social media. When the Supreme Court did consider the impact of money on speech in Citizens United, it enabled corporations to translate wealth into direct political power. The A.C.L.U. wrongly supported this devastating ruling on First Amendment grounds.

Prince is right about one thing, in particular:

Due Process requires that decisions be public and not arbitrary. It’s why we’ve always said that our policy is to follow the guidance of the law in the jurisdictions in which we operate. Law enforcement, legislators, and courts have the political legitimacy and predictability to make decisions on what content should be restricted. Companies should not.

Of the many serious flaws in the infrastructure of the internet is that most of it is powered by private corporations, many of which are based in the United States. Due to network effects, we have consolidated much of the web around just a handful of them: Amazon is the largest cloud infrastructure provider by far, Google dominates in many fields, over a quarter of the world’s population uses Facebook monthly, and Prince says that Cloudflare handles 10% of internet requests. As he says, they have very little accountability about what is and what is not allowed on their platforms. We have replaced many of the rights afforded to us in our own jurisdictions with the rights given to American companies.

Zeynep Tufekci in 2010:

I argue that this is too limited a view. We have to stop looking at the “Facebook – lone individual” transaction and look at what’s going on at the systemic level. This isn’t just about Facebook, either. This is about the fact that increasing portions of our sociality are now conducted in privately-owned spaces. The implications of this are still playing out.

The latest developments appear to be the next stage to the historical trend of privatization of our publics. Examples of those include the dominance of corporate-owned media over the civic public sphere, outsourcing of many government functions to less-accountable contractors including some aspects of war, increasing reduction of our public spaces to malls and privately-owned town-squares, such as downtown Silver Spring, MD where first-amendment does not apply, etc.

What is currently happening is the privatization of our privates, not just our publics. And this is not a mere question of legality but a lack of legal protections being carried over to a new medium. In some sense, this parallels the lack of carrying of wiretap protections on the phone to the Internet – the social relations did not change but the medium changed allowing for a gap in legal protections.

This is deeply concerning to me — likely because I am not American, and therefore have different expectations as to the rights and roles of private companies, and the kinds of speech that ought to be permissible. So long as we entrust the vast majority of the internet’s infrastructure to private companies, questions like those about Cloudflare’s role in providing services to the Daily Stormer will persist. While we are communicating, publishing, reading, broadcasting, posting, commenting, and living our lives online in the hands of a small group of large, lightly-regulated American companies, we will continue to have a debate over what role they ought to play in regulating whatever they host or transmit.

Update: When comparing the dominance of different large providers, an earlier version of this article stated that WordPress holds a 28% market share. That’s true, but it’s a combination of the WordPress.com hosted service and the WordPress.org software package. Thank you to reader Giacomo for reminding me of this. I have replaced that figure with a reminder of how dominant Amazon’s cloud infrastructure is.

  1. Prince should also discontinue his company’s business relationships with pro-ISIS websites, too. ↩︎

  2. I think his emphasis on Cloudflare’s role as a way to protect against vigilante hackers or DDoSes is a red herring. Of course I don’t think vigilantism is a good response, but knowingly providing any support to websites preaching hatred and destruction is completely unethical. Yeah, it’s just business, but I haven’t ever heard a good argument for freeing business of ethical responsibility. ↩︎

History Explains Tech’s Diversity Problem

Sarah Jeong and Rachel Becker, the Verge:

“Essentially, engineering is all about cooperation, collaboration, and empathy for both your colleagues and your customers,” writes Yonatan Zunger, formerly of Google. “If someone told you that engineering was a field where you could get away with not dealing with people or feelings, then I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been lied to. Solitary work is something that only happens at the most junior levels, and even then it’s only possible because someone senior to you — most likely your manager — has been putting in long hours to build up the social structures in your group that let you focus on code.”

Let’s set that aside for just a moment, however, and assume that doing “tech” means you don’t have to deal with people or feelings. Is Damore arguing that men should form a massive underclass of drone-like, thing-oriented engineers managed by a superior overclass of emotionally intelligent women? Of course not. That would be absurd.

But it’s only absurd because it’s not the way things actually are. The memo isn’t reaching for a higher truth — it is instead the expression of a reactionary instinct to preserve the status quo. Deflection: now, with graphs!

That’s the money quote in this fantastic, well-researched piece: Damore’s memo isn’t documenting a discovery, it’s a feeble attempt to defend his existing biases.

Apple’s Planned Original Programming Efforts Rumoured to Have a $1 Billion Budget

Tripp Mickle, Wall Street Journal:

Apple Inc. has set a budget of roughly $1 billion to procure and produce original content over the next year, according to people familiar with the matter, as the iPhone maker shows how serious it is about making a splash in Hollywood.

Combined with the company’s marketing clout and global reach, the step immediately makes Apple a considerable competitor in a crowded market where both new and traditional media players are vying to acquire original shows. Apple’s budget is about half what Time Warner Inc.’s HBO spent on content last year and on par with estimates of what Amazon.com Inc. spent in 2013, the year after it announced its move into original programming.

Recode’s Peter Kafka points out that Apple recently hired two Sony TV executives, and today Joe Otterson of Variety reported that ex-president of WGN Matt Cherniss will be working for the ex-Sony executives to run this division.

I sincerely hope these shows are of a far higher calibre than their poor attempts so far, but I think that requires a different kind of thinking from Apple. Autocorrect and Siri refuse to fix profanity, for example, and the rules of the App Store famously prohibit most kinds of adult-oriented apps. I don’t object to those limitations, but if similar brand-preserving restrictions were to be imposed on their television efforts, I wonder how many directors and writers would be drawn to Apple rather than, say, Netflix.

I also hope these shows are not run, like “Planet of the Apps”, through the Music app — they have a TV app. I’m not sure why, but this really bothers me.

Some Content About Content

Evan Williams, McSweeney’s:

Content was invented in 2007 by Steven Ross, a principal at a boutique communications agency. Ross, who now works as a freelance visionpreneur, often became confused when he had to discuss the many different kinds of work — articles, videos, photos — he would commission for clients. But one day, while taking a bath, he had a thought that would change the world.

Why not just call it all content?

There’s very little so degrading to someone who produces largely-creative works as is calling whatever they make “content”. I’ll tell you what, though: it’s going to be pretty rewarding in ten years’ time to browse the innovative content collected at New York’s Museum of Modern Content.


This is a short story of when loose language runs rampant and we start, as usual, with an analyst’s report, as cited by Todd Haselton of CNBC:

Google is paying Apple billions of dollars to remain the default search engine on iPhones and iPads, Bernstein said in a note to investors on Monday.

The firm believes that Google will pay Apple about $3 billion this year, up from $1 billion just three years ago, and that Google’s licensing fees make up a large bulk of Apple’s services business.

Setting aside the accuracy of this estimate, the phrase “a large bulk” became even more substantial when Abner Li of 9to5Mac linked to the report (emphasis mine):

A new report from Bernstein today estimates that the deal is worth $3 billion in 2017. This agreement is equally lucrative for Apple and makes up the bulk of their growing services division, according to the analysis. Additionally, the payment is described as “nearly all profit for Apple,” with Google possibly accounting for 5% of Apple’s total operating profit this year.

This disparity was noticed by Dr. Drang:

The article is entitled “Google pays $3 billion for default search on iOS, estimated to be bulk of Apple services business,” which is not so much a title as a topic sentence. Given that Apple released its latest quarterly financial report just a couple of weeks ago, the combination of “$3 billion” and “bulk of Apple services business” should have raised a red flag. Apple reported over $7 billion in services revenue in the last quarter alone. There’s simply no way $3 billion from Google (regardless of whether that speculative figure is right or wrong) could make up the bulk of Apple’s yearly services revenue.

There’s something else, too, that I think bears questioning in the report:

“Court documents indicate that Google paid Apple $1B in 2014, and we estimate that total Google payments to Apple in FY 17 may approach $3B,” Bernstein analyst A.M. Sacconaghi Jr. said. “Given that Google payments are nearly all profit for Apple, Google alone may account for 5% of Apple’s total operating profits this year, and may account for 25% of total company OP growth over the last two years.”

Except what isn’t reflected in the CNBC article or its published excerpts from Sacconaghi Jr.’s investor note is that Apple’s fiscal year 2016 profits didn’t grow year-over-year — they shrank, to the tune of $7.7 billion compared to 2015. Fiscal year 2017 isn’t complete yet, but Apple has reported $37.64 billion in profit so far, compared to $36.7 billion for the first three quarters of 2016.

I’m not going to do the math on this, but the omission of any indication in the report that Apple’s 2016 was a shrinking year severely impacts the interpretation of the data.

Ming-Chi Kuo Echoes LTE Apple Watch Rumours

Zac Hall, 9to5Mac:

Reliable analyst Ming-Chi Kuo of KGI Securities has released a new forecast on the next generation Apple Watch. According to Kuo, the Apple Watch 3 will ship later this year with both LTE and non-LTE models offered. Kuo also expects the next Apple Watch will retain the same general design and not feature an obvious new form factor.

Kuo specifies that the Apple Watch will continue to ship in two size configurations: 38mm and 42mm cases.

The LTE rumours are similar to what Bloomberg reported last week, but the lack of form factor changes notably contrasts with what John Gruber wrote:

No mention in Businessweek’s report, though, of the all-new form factor that I’ve heard is coming for this year’s new watches. That tidbit came from an unconfirmed little birdie, though, so I wouldn’t bet the house on it.

The second sentence in that quote was added a short time after the preceding sentence was published, so it sounds like Gruber might not be confident that the form factor change would be launched this year. On the other hand, perhaps it is technically “all-new”, but still looks rather similar — maybe it could be like the current models except noticeably thinner, for example. I wouldn’t bet on that, though: the component with the greatest volume in today’s Apple Watch is the battery, and the Watch doesn’t exactly have loads of surplus power.

Welcome to Macintosh Season 3 Coming Next Week

John Voorhees, MacStories:

Today, [Mark Bramhill] announced Season 3 of Welcome to Macintosh, which will be published every other Friday beginning August 18th. Season 3 is the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $17,000 to cover travel and other production costs. Backers of the project will receive behind-the-scenes videos and a special podcast feed available alongside the new Season 3 episodes, all of which are accessible from a special Members page on Macintosh.fm.

The first two seasons of Bramhill’s podcast were solid gold; I can’t wait for the third season to begin next week. Concise, well-edited, well-told stories are a rarity amongst tech podcasts, but Bramhill knows what he’s doing — even the promo sounds like its own little story.

This Idiotic Anti-Diversity Manifesto Thing Refuses to Go Away

Kara Swisher reports for Recode that an all-hands meeting at Google was cancelled:

Google CEO Sundar Pichai has canceled the company’s much-anticipated meeting to talk about gender issues today. The move came after some of its employees expressed concern over online harassment they had begun to receive after their questions and names have been published outside the company on a variety of largely alt-right sites.


Wired reported earlier that conservative pundit Milo Yiannopoulos “posted on his Facebook page the Twitter biographies of eight Google employees who criticized Damore’s post.”

Don’t kid yourself: the people and publishers knew fully well that targeted harassment could occur when they posted the names and identifiable features of Google employees who expressed disagreement with the manifesto. That’s indefensible, as is the harassment itself.

Cynthia Lee, for Vox, explains why the manifesto is so toxic:

To be a woman in tech is to know the thrill of participating in one of the most transformative revolutions humankind has known, to experience the crystalline satisfaction of finding an elegant solution to an algorithmic challenge, to want to throw the monitor out the window in frustration with a bug and, later, to do a happy dance in a chair while finally fixing it. To be a woman in tech is also to always and forever be faced with skepticism that I do and feel all those things authentically enough to truly belong. There is always a jury, and it’s always still out.

When men in tech listen to the experiences of women in tech, they can come to understand how this manifesto was throwing a match into dry brush in fire season.

The only thing in Lee’s article that I would contest is this, in regards to the faux academic tone of the manifesto:

I cannot judge what the author’s motives might be in adopting this rhetorical strategy: It could be cynical and strategic, or, as I suspect, the author may simply be very, very naïve.

I find that assumption very charitable. T.C. Sottek of the Verge:

Former Google engineer James Damore, who was fired for distributing a memo suggesting women are not biologically suited for certain types of work, is now branding himself as a brave truth teller. In what appears to be his new Twitter account, Damore can be seen wearing a shirt with the word “Goolag,” a play on “Google” that means to suggest the Silicon Valley search company is something like the infamous Soviet camps where prisoners were worked and starved to death as part of one of the 20th century’s worst genocides.

Outside Google’s Venice office, bus stops have been defaced with professionally-printed signs featuring the same idiotic statement. That show of support plus internal Google polls that suggest that Damore is far from an outlier in his views is a truly worrying proposition — worrying, that is, but not surprising.

See Also: Suzanne Sadedin’s response.

Benchmark Capital Sues Travis Kalanick for Fraud

Dan Primack broke the story at Axios:

The battle between Benchmark Capital and Travis Kalanick just went nuclear, with the venture capital firm suing the former Uber CEO for fraud, breach of contract and breach of fiduciary duty. The complaint was filed earlier today in Delaware Chancery Court.

Key graph, per the suit: “Kalanick, the former CEO of Uber, to entrench himself on Uber’s Board of Directors and increase his power over Uber for his own selfish ends. Kalanick’s overarching objective is to pack Uber’s Board with loyal allies in an effort to insulate his prior conduct from scrutiny and clear the path for his eventual return as CEO—all to the detriment of Uber’s stockholders, employees, driver-partners, and customers.”

Recode’s Kara Swisher, two weeks ago:

To add to the drama: Some directors worry that its former CEO Travis Kalanick — who was ousted — is trying to game the outcome in his favor, after he told several people that he was “Steve Jobs-ing it.” It is a reference to the late leader of Apple, who was fired from the company, only to later return in triumph.

Compare and contrast the shocked and dismayed employee reactions after Kalanick stepped down as CEO — a move Benchmark also helped engineer — with the moves of investors and the company since he left: there clearly remains a modicum of confidence in Kalanick within Uber; there’s no confidence in him from outside parties.

Update: Of course, investors not having confidence in Kalanick doesn’t mean that investors have confidence in each other. A group of shareholders now wants Benchmark off the board for this lawsuit.

The Generational Effect of Smartphone Use

Jean M. Twenge, in a very popular article for the Atlantic:

The advent of the smartphone and its cousin the tablet was followed quickly by hand-wringing about the deleterious effects of “screen time.” But the impact of these devices has not been fully appreciated, and goes far beyond the usual concerns about curtailed attention spans. The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives, from the nature of their social interactions to their mental health. These changes have affected young people in every corner of the nation and in every type of household. The trends appear among teens poor and rich; of every ethnic background; in cities, suburbs, and small towns. Where there are cell towers, there are teens living their lives on their smartphone.

To those of us who fondly recall a more analog adolescence, this may seem foreign and troubling. The aim of generational study, however, is not to succumb to nostalgia for the way things used to be; it’s to understand how they are now. Some generational changes are positive, some are negative, and many are both. More comfortable in their bedrooms than in a car or at a party, today’s teens are physically safer than teens have ever been. They’re markedly less likely to get into a car accident and, having less of a taste for alcohol than their predecessors, are less susceptible to drinking’s attendant ills.

Psychologically, however, they are more vulnerable than Millennials were: Rates of teen depression and suicide have skyrocketed since 2011. It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen [Twenge’s name for those born between 1995 and 2012] as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.

With a premise that smartphones might be “destroying a generation”, it’s no wonder that this article was so widely-shared and linked-to. Only one problem: it isn’t accurate.

Sarah Rose Cavanagh, in Psychology Today:

Nowhere is Twenge’s bias more obvious to me than in some research that she actually does review but then casts aside as seemingly irrelevant to her thesis – namely, the vast counter-evidence to the “destroyed generation” thesis contained in her headline. In the introduction to the piece she notes that this generation has sharply lower rates of alcohol use, teen pregnancies, unprotected sex, smoking, and car accidents than previous generations. This is what a destroyed generation looks like?

It’s easy, I think, to make the argument that Twenge made, if only because it’s something many of us feel. But there simply isn’t the evidence to show that smartphone use is clearly and directly tied to concerning psychological conditions.

Understanding Apple’s Services

Tim Cook, as transcribed by iMore’s Micah Sargent, during Apple’s most recent earnings report:

Services revenue hit an all-time quarterly record of $7.3 billion, representing 22% growth over last year. We continue to see great performance all around the world, with double-digit growth in each of our geographic segments. Over the last 12 months, our services business has become the size of a Fortune 100 company — a milestone we’ve reached even sooner than we had expected.

The idea of Apple’s services branch being a Fortune 100 company is a statement that a few publications took far too literally, ignoring the context for its success and growth.

Jean-Louis Gassée in Monday Note:

But the biggest misunderstanding isn’t the theoretical placement in the Fortune 100 list, or the comparisons to Facebook. It’s the consideration of Apple Services as a self-standing business. Remove “Apple” from “Apple Services”…would this stand-alone “Services” company enjoy the same success were it to service Android phones or Windows PCs?

Apple Services is an important member of the supporting cast that pushes the volume and margins for the main act: Apple Personal Computers. These come in three sizes, small (iPhone), medium (iPad), and large (Mac). If rumors of the addition of a cellular modem are true, we may even see the Watch, today an iPhone accessory, added to the cast as the newest and smallest performer.

Everything else that Apple offers has one raison d’être: Fueling the company’s main hardware act without which Apple is nothing.

A counterargument that I could see for Gassée’s article is the availability of Apple Music for Android devices. Perhaps it serves a similar role as the iPod used to — a halo product to get people interested in the Apple ecosystem — but I think it’s more of a way to bolster the success of Apple Music due to the network effects of streaming services.

Either way, Apple Music is not a very strong counterargument because it’s not really the same kind of product as Apple’s other services. iCloud, for example, is available on Windows PCs and on the web, but you’d never consider using it on either platform without also having one of Apple’s devices as well — it’s just too clunky. Apple Music, on the other hand, works the same regardless of where it’s used; the advantages gained by using it on Apple’s platforms are mainly through its integration with Siri.

The Touch Bar After Ten Months

Josh Centers, TidBits:

Alas, closing in on a year later, I’ve found that I don’t use the Touch Bar much. I was forced to confront this unhappy fact when Adam suggested that I write an article about interesting uses of the Touch Bar. After some research, we agreed that there wasn’t enough there to warrant an article. Although there was a flurry of fascinating developer projects after launch, nothing significant ever shipped.

I’m not saying the Touch Bar is useless, because that isn’t true. At least in theory, it’s more capable and more flexible than a row of physical keys. And Touch ID is fantastic for logging into my MacBook Pro and authenticating 1Password. But if you were to ask me today if you should spend the $300–$400 extra on a MacBook Pro with a Touch Bar, I would say no for two reasons.

It’s revealing that many reviews I’ve read of Apple’s latest generation of MacBook Pros point to Touch ID alone as the most significant feature of owning a Touch Bar-equipped model. Perhaps the Touch Bar is primarily designed to be something that allows consumers to access lesser-known application features and shortcuts. If that’s the case, though, why did it ship in the MacBook Pro first, to the chagrin of that product’s core user base?

Facebook and Google’s Ad ‘Duopoly’ Seems to Be Going Nowhere

Alex Kantrowitz, Buzzfeed:

The brand safety episode illustrates just how hard it is to stop the Google and Facebook freight train. Google and Facebook attained duopoly power specifically because of a super-compelling value proposition: Both platforms stand out by providing advertisers access to enormous amounts of people, and enabling them to slice and dice audiences with unparalleled precision and accuracy. Spending money with them can be formulaic for advertisers: X dollars in gets Y dollars out. Nothing else online even comes close. “There was a lot of saber rattling, a lot of alternatives, alternatives, alternatives,” Racic said. “In the digital realm, there is no other alternative.”

Google and Facebook have truly set themselves up to be indispensable. Many of our favourite websites are directly tied to the success of Google and Facebook; their success is, in turn, related to how many ads they can sell, which is — in part — dependent on how accurately-targeted their advertising products are. And that, of course, is driven by how much we use their ostensibly free services. Nobody else has a network of data generation and ad distribution comparable to either Facebook or Google.

It doesn’t have to be like this, of course. There are alternatives — direct ad sales, “native” advertising, and affiliate shopping links, for example — but those solutions tend to work a lot better for bigger publishers than smaller ones. There are smaller ad networks that handle the difficult business of selling and maintaining ad inventory, but they come with some of the same problems as any network of advertising not controlled by the publisher: the majority of sidebar ads here, for example, are for products and services I don’t use; a few might be for things I’d actively recommend against. But that’s the nature of advertising aimed at generalized readership demographics rather than specific targeting. So far, though, the trend is towards more targeting and more data collection — an ongoing amplification of the power held by Google and Facebook.

The Flaws With ‘I Think, Therefore I Am Entitled to My Opinion’

Maximillian Alvarez, writing in the Baffler:

At the collective level, the implications of this linking of opinion to selfhood are obvious — we’re living through them. Dangerous and stupid opinions are “normalized” and given an equal footing with others that have substantiated themselves through some agreed-upon criteria of legitimacy. Fringe groups with violent goals feel emboldened by their growing acceptance in the mainstream. People all over become more and more alien to one another as we all harden into stubborn, fixed kernels, retreating ever farther into our skull-shaped cages of self.

I thought this was an appropriately-timed essay — though coincidentally so — especially in the aftermath of that shitty Google memo, the terrible arguments it contains, and the toxic justifications posted after its leak.

Disney to End Agreement With Netflix, Will Offer Own-Brand Competitor

Todd Spangler, Variety:

Disney is ending its distribution agreement with Netflix for new movie releases, while it’s also buying majority ownership of BAMTech — the streaming-video division founded by Major League Baseball — in a $1.58 billion deal.

The moves set a firm course for the media giant to launch direct-to-consumer internet services from ESPN and Disney. Disney said will end its distribution agreement with Netflix for subscription streaming of new movie releases, beginning with the 2019 theatrical slate.

This attempt at self-distribution might actually work out for Disney — though that’s a big “might”, given how entrenched Netflix is in many of our lives. Despite struggling recently, ESPN is still the highest-valued channel amongst cable providers, according to a Beta Research survey from earlier this year. Paying separately for ESPN is not as ideal as a single subscription, of course, but baseball fans already pay $3 per month for MLB at Bat.

Disney itself remains one of the most well-known names in film and television. I’m not sure how many people would pay $10 every month for access to Disney films and television shows exclusively, but I’m sure there’s an audience there, given the size and scope of their influence. Remember: Disney also owns Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel Studios, and they have large shares in lots of other media companies, like A&E and Vice. Even if their streaming service only has movies and TV shows from companies owned by Disney, that still represents some of the biggest annual releases.

As usual for gigantic companies, this argument doesn’t seem completely unreasonable for Disney because of what’s in their holdings portfolio. Self-distribution is also something that can work out alright for very small producers who have an emotionally-attached audience. I doubt that anything like this would work for companies in the middle, however.

But that leads down the same kind of slippery slope as the presumed end game of the revocation of net neutrality rules. That’s because Disney’s competitors are not Universal Studios, DreamWorks, or Warner Brothers directly, but larger media conglomerates like Comcast, Verizon, and — soon — AT&T. Is Disney interested in becoming an ISP, too?

Update: I’ve updated the title of this post to be a little more accurate. They are pulling their films, just not yet. Sorry, it’s a dumb mistake.

Property Managers, Not Private Residents, Allegedly Largest Airbnb Beneficiaries

Andrea Bellemare, CBC News:

A small number of commercial property managers generate a majority of Airbnb’s overall revenue, eating up available housing stock and driving up rent in Canada’s three biggest cities, a new study from Montreal’s McGill University concludes.

“Just 10 per cent of hosts account for a majority of the revenue and the nights booked on Airbnb consistently in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal,” said the study’s lead author, David Wachsmuth, a McGill professor of urban planning, in an interview on CBC Montreal’s Daybreak.

Airbnb is already a mixed bag. I know of a couple of units in the building where I live that are more-or-less permanently available on Airbnb. That suggests that the signed tenants probably don’t live in those units, and are subletting them for a hotel-esque nightly fee. It’s not allowed, but it happens — and the Airbnb units are preventing me from upgrading my apartment.

But property managers doing the same is even worse. The incentives are aligned to do so: they might make as much money every nine or ten days from Airbnb as they would every month from a tenant. That makes it harder for people to find places to live in the city, and — according to Wachsmuth’s findings — likely makes it more expensive for them once they do.

The market for Airbnb and similar services — in fact, all “gig economy” services — is there. The question is whether they’re a true positive, especially from an ethical perspective.

An Anti-Diversity Manifesto Is Circulating Within Google

Kate Conger, Gizmodo:

A software engineer’s 10-page screed against Google’s diversity initiatives is going viral inside the company, being shared on an internal meme network and Google+. The document’s existence was first reported by Motherboard, and Gizmodo has obtained it in full.

In the memo, which is the personal opinion of a male Google employee and is titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” the author argues that women are underrepresented in tech not because they face bias and discrimination in the workplace, but because of inherent psychological differences between men and women. “We need to stop assuming that gender gaps imply sexism,” he writes, going on to argue that Google’s educational programs for young women may be misguided.

Amongst the fallout from this manifesto, the most abhorrent replies are those praising the author for his bravery in raising these issues — as though it’s a simple matter of opinion, like whether blackberry or raspberry jam is better in a peanut butter sandwich. These responses serve to legitimize bullshit, and that would be a farcical take on the current information climate in which we live if it were not so objectionable.

Former Google engineer Yonatan Zunger, in a section of a Medium post addressed directly to the author of the manifesto:

You talked about a need for discussion about ideas; you need to learn the difference between “I think we should adopt Go as our primary language” and “I think one-third of my colleagues are either biologically unsuited to do their jobs, or if not are exceptions and should be suspected of such until they can prove otherwise to each and every person’s satisfaction.” Not all ideas are the same, and not all conversations about ideas even have basic legitimacy.

Some opinions and arguments are simply and plainly wrong. We need to stop pretending that there is validity to every opinion. What this Googler wrote is wrong, and those defending him for writing it are complicit in spreading a falsely-equivalent argument.

HomePod Firmware Reveals Scene Detection Features

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

The HomePod firmware Apple released early continues to offer up insight into future software and hardware capabilities for the HomePod, iPhone 8, and other devices, with the newest discovery coming today developer from Guilherme Rambo.


The firmware suggests the camera app will be able to detect different types of scenes, photo conditions, and photography subjects like pets and children. Several scenes are referenced, including Fireworks, Foliage, Pet, BrightStage, Sport, Sky, Snow, and Sunset/Sunrise, indicating the iPhone’s camera may be able to detect a scene and then set the ideal exposure, shutter speed, and other factors to take the best photograph.

I return to one of the questions that I asked earlier this week: how could something like this be exposed by the HomePod firmware? The HomePod doesn’t have a camera; in fact, the firmware suggests that these features are specifically for an as-yet unannounced iPhone to be released this year.1 Even though I understand that the HomePod is still being developed and that the firmware is a nowhere-near-final fork of iOS, I don’t necessarily see why code for completely unrelated features — especially features that seem to be specific to a different product — would be in there.

Also of note: this firmware leak is right up there with the lost or stolen iPhone 4 in terms of what it is revealing well ahead of when Apple intended. However, it’s fascinating to me that it has received little mainstream press coverage. The iPhone 4 leak was in major newspapers and on television; this leak seems like it is basically confined to the tech press. Maybe it’s because there’s no physical hardware to show or because leaks like this aren’t as interesting as stories about an iPhone being left in a bar, but I’m surprised by the relative lack of coverage outside of the tech sphere.

  1. The “Pearl” codename that was discovered in the firmware was rumoured to refer to the new face-based unlocking feature. However, there are references to Pearl with regard to the back camera in the firmware as well — a context which makes no sense to me for unlocking a device. My bet is that “Pearl” refers to new object and scene recognition features generally, of which facial unlocking is one part. While I’m aimlessly speculating, I’d also like to point out that “Iris Engine” was trademarked by Apple last year. At the time, I thought this might refer to some new camera tech for the iPhone 7; now, I think it might be the marketing name for Pearl features. But, hey, I’m just throwing stuff at the proverbial wall. ↩︎

The Notch

Max Rudberg has been playing around with different ideas on how an iPhone with a “notched” screen and virtual home button might work in practice. They’re intriguing mockups — you should check them out and, for what it’s worth, I’m partial to his third option — and they give me an opportunity to pose a question I’ve been thinking about for months: will third-party apps be able to customize what gets displayed in the home button area and in the display segments on either side of the notch? My hunch is that apps will be able to select whether they run in full screen — hiding the onscreen home button — or normal mode, but nothing beyond that.

The Matter of High-End iPad Growth

Nigel Warren (via Michael Tsai):

The iPad’s average selling price can be seen as an indication of whether the iPad has the potential to continue evolving into a more capable tool. If sales of the Pro line are weak, it’s a sign that Apple hasn’t succeeded in creating useful functionality that takes advantage of improved hardware. And if users don’t need improved hardware, Apple’s business model can’t justify continued iPad software development long term.

It has been remarkable over the past several years to watch the iPad’s skyrocketing performance potential, but it has been infuriating to see a lack of comparable software improvements. iOS 11 will help turn that corner, but I feel a lot of work remains to make the power of the iPad feel like it’s being put to use.

Decrypting Amber Rudd

Aran Balkan (via Toob Design):

What Amber Rudd wants will not make you safer. It will not protect you from terrorists. What it will do is make it easier for governments to spy on activists and on minority groups. What it will do is make all of less safe and lead to chilling effects that will destroy what little democracy we have left. It will result in a surveillance state and a global panopticon the likes of which humanity has never seen.

As for the companies that are part of the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism – Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube (Google/Alphabet, Inc.) – only a fool would trust a single word that comes out of their mouths about end-to-end encryption on their platforms or about the privacy features of their apps. Given what Rudd has said, consider that any end-to-end encryption they say they have today may be disabled and compromised, without your knowledge, during any app update at any time in the future.

I doubt many people really trust what Facebook and Google say about privacy anyway, but their participation in these confidential talks is not confidence-inspiring. Of note, Snap and Justpaste.it are now participants in the Global Internet Forum as well.

The iPad’s Comeback Tour

Dr. Drang points to two key figures in Apple’s latest earnings, with regard to the iPad: its 15% increase in unit sales, and its 2% growth in revenue,1 both compared to last year’s third quarter:

A real, live, honest-to-goodness, actual rise of 15% in year-over-year unit sales led to an upturn in the four-quarter moving average, the first since the end of 2013. No one needs to root for Apple to make more money, but this is the kind of news that might encourage developers to support the iPad and make it a better product for all of us.

More new iPads being sold combined with this autumn’s iOS update — which, unlike last year, actually has features for the iPad — should mean a healthier ecosystem. But the 2% revenue growth implies that the vast majority of growth in the iPads sold this quarter occurred because of the new entry-level model, which doesn’t have the power, features, or price of the recently-updated Pro models. Drang says that this might indicate that developers of higher-end apps might not find this price-conscious shopping very encouraging, but I think there might be a longer-term halo effect created by the entry-level model. It doesn’t have the performance or features of the Pro models, but I think its refinement together with the features in iOS 11 might drive people to exploring higher-end options.

  1. For comparison (PDF), the iPhone grew 2% in units but 3% in revenue compared to this time last year, and the Mac grew just 1% in units, but 7% in revenue. ↩︎

Amber Rudd’s Ruddy Dumb Case Against Encryption

The Telegraph on Monday published an op-ed by Amber Rudd, the U.K.’s present Home Secretary, making the case for a way for investigators to be able to see encrypted data without somehow breaking the fundamental principles of encrypted data. It’s behind a paywall, but I’ll quote the salient paragraphs. And, after setting the stage with a couple-hundred words about terrorism, we get to the titular topic:

Encryption plays a fundamental role in protecting us all online. It is key to growing the digital economy, and delivering public services online. But, like many powerful technologies, encrypted services are used and abused by a small minority of people. The particular challenge is around so called “end-to-end” encryption, where even the service provider cannot see the content of a communication.

Rudd admits that it’s a very small minority who lean upon encryption to mask their criminal deeds. But that’s the case for lots of different technologies: a small minority of people use a telephone to plan a crime and, even though GCHQ was able to record all phone traffic, their overbearing surveillance was found to be illegal. A small minority of people burn physical evidence of a crime, but fire isn’t outlawed.

To be very clear – Government supports strong encryption and has no intention of banning end-to-end encryption.

That isn’t what Rudd has been threatening for months.

But the inability to gain access to encrypted data in specific and targeted instances – even with a warrant signed by a Secretary of State and a senior judge – is right now severely limiting our agencies’ ability to stop terrorist attacks and bring criminals to justice.

Again, there have always been ways for enterprising criminals to get around the interception of their communications: they can meet in person, or use coded phrases.

I know some will argue that it’s impossible to have both – that if a system is end-to-end encrypted then it’s impossible ever to access the communication. That might be true in theory.

No, that’s true in fact.

This is where things really start to break down for Rudd. She’s arguing here that providers of encrypted communications software can, somehow, intercept communications in a human-readable way without compromising the security of the system overall. Quite simply, that’s completely bunk.

But the reality is different. Real people often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, unbreakable security.

Why not have both? User experience and platform security are completely different fields and, generally, do not compete, so much as work together.

So this is not about asking the companies to break encryption or create so called “back doors”.

Yes it is. That’s exactly what Rudd is asking for — a way for authorized users to eavesdrop on encrypted communications without creating a security vulnerability:

So, there are options. But they rely on mature conversations between the tech companies and Government 
– and they must be confidential. The key point is that this is not about compromising wider security. It is about working together so we can find a way for our intelligence services, in very specific circumstances, to get more information on what serious criminals and terrorists are doing online.

Rudd, like so many others in similar positions, is going up against math and physics with hopes and dreams of back doors in encryption. It isn’t going to happen.

The responsibility for tackling this threat at every level lies with both governments and with industry. And we have a shared interest: we want to protect our citizens and we don’t want platforms being used to plan ways to do them harm.

But Rudd is okay with introducing vulnerabilities in different software packages used by billions of people around the world, including users in authoritarian regimes with leaders who are more interested in controlling the citizens they rule instead of protecting them. Creating a still-mythical way for a government to peer into a WhatsApp or iMessage conversation is inviting harm upon billions of people who rely upon reliably secured and encrypted communications — including Britons.