Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for June, 2019

Politico: American Officials Met to Discuss Outlawing Encryption

Eric Geller, Politico:

Senior officials debated whether to ask Congress to effectively outlaw end-to-end encryption, which scrambles data so that only its sender and recipient can read it, these people told POLITICO. Tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook have increasingly built end-to-end encryption into their products and software in recent years — billing it as a privacy and security feature but frustrating authorities investigating terrorism, drug trafficking and child pornography.

“The two paths were to either put out a statement or a general position on encryption, and [say] that they would continue to work on a solution, or to ask Congress for legislation,” said one of the people.

But the previously unreported meeting of the NSC’s so-called Deputies Committee did not produce a decision, the people said.

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

It’s been said before, but this is not a debate. There is no debate. There is no “on the one hand, on the other hand.” There is no “privacy v. security.” This is “no privacy and weakened security v. actual privacy and actual security.” There’s literally no debate to be had here. If you understand the issues, encryption is essential, and any effort to take away end-to-end encryption is outlawing technology that keeps everyone safe.

You can either have encryption that ensures the safety and privacy of the information it protects, or you have no encryption and everything is compromised. There is no middle ground.

Ive Is, Apparently, Irreplaceable

Shortly before Jony Ive was promoted to Chief Design Officer, the New Yorker ran a truly excellent piece about him and the company as a whole. An excerpt:

In 2007, the year of the iPhone launch, the Ives bought an eleven-bedroom seventeenth-century house, with a lake, in rural Somerset, in the West of England. Ive had been at Apple for fifteen years; his children were nearing school age. When Ive and his wife were photographed among the tanned and lacquered guests at San Francisco fund-raisers, they looked palely handsome and a little puzzled, as if misdirected from the set of a Jane Austen adaptation. At the time, Michael Ive hoped that the Somerset house presaged a permanent return. He told me that he had learned not to ask three questions: “When are you coming back to England?”; “What are you working on?”; “Planning any more kids?”

According to Clive Grinyer, Ive had by then considered returning to the U.K., entering a “magnificent early retirement” in which he worked on “luxury items with Marc.” As Grinyer recalls his conversations with Ive, Apple’s success, and Jobs’s worsening health, revised such plans. Apple sold six million phones in the first year. By 2012, the company was selling more than a hundred million a year. In the same period — during which Apple launched the iPad and the MacBook Air — the company’s valuation quadrupled. “The iPhone just seemed to change the entire world,” Grinyer said. “I think he is burdened by it. He’s got no choice, the poor guy. He really has to see it out, and I know it wasn’t his plan. Which is not to say he’s not enjoying it.” By the spring of 2011, the Somerset house was back on the market. (Ive’s former guesthouse — limestone flooring, double Neff oven — is available for short-term rentals.)

For what it’s worth, Ive denied that he was considering moving.

In linking to it, I wrote:

Ive certainly has a lot of pressure on his shoulders. After Steve Jobs resigned his CEO post, and again after he died, Apple’s stock price was — perhaps surprisingly — unaffected. But if and when Jony Ive leaves Apple, I can’t imagine their share price and their perceived future viability would be unaffected to the same or greater extent. Jobs left a willing and public successor, Tim Cook, in his wake; Ive doesn’t have anyone like that. He is both irreplaceable, and yet he must eventually be replaced.

I don’t know what I was doing with the italics in this paragraph, but I stand by my assessment that Ive’s departure is likely greater than that of Jobs’. But I was wrong in my very last sentence — Apple has not announced a true replacement:

Design team leaders Evans Hankey, vice president of Industrial Design, and Alan Dye, vice president of Human Interface Design, will report to Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer. Both Dye and Hankey have played key leadership roles on Apple’s design team for many years. Williams has led the development of Apple Watch since its inception and will spend more of his time working with the design team in their studio.

At Apple — Apple, of all companies — there will likely be nobody on the leadership page with “design” in their title for the first time since 2006.

While we’re thinking about that that New Yorker profile and Jeff Williams, just one more thing:

Ive would prefer an unobserved life, but he likes nice things. He also has an Aston Martin DB4. He acquired his first Bentley, a two-door model, ten years ago, after an inner zigzag between doubt and self-justification. “I’ve always loved the big old-school square Bentleys,” he said. “The reasons are entirely design-based. But because of the other connotations I resisted and resisted, and then I thought, This is the most bizarre vanity, because I’m concerned that people will perceive me to be this way—I’m not. So I’m going to—” A pause. “And so I am uncomfortable about it.” Jeff Williams, Apple’s senior vice-president of operations, drives an old Toyota Camry. Ive’s verdict, according to Williams, is “Oh, God.”

“Oh, God,” indeed.

Jony Ive Is Leaving Apple

Apple:

Apple today announced that Sir Jony Ive, Apple’s chief design officer, will depart the company as an employee later this year to form an independent design company which will count Apple among its primary clients. While he pursues personal projects, Ive in his new company will continue to work closely and on a range of projects with Apple.

[…]

Design team leaders Evans Hankey, vice president of Industrial Design, and Alan Dye, vice president of Human Interface Design, will report to Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer. Both Dye and Hankey have played key leadership roles on Apple’s design team for many years. Williams has led the development of Apple Watch since its inception and will spend more of his time working with the design team in their studio.

Tim Bradshaw, of the Financial Times, scored an interview with Ive on his departure. In Ive’s words:

“There was an employee meeting a number of years ago and Steve [Jobs] was talking . . . He [said] that one of the fundamental motivations was that when you make something with love and with care, even though you probably will never meet . . . the people that you’re making it for, and you’ll never shake their hand, by making something with care, you are expressing your gratitude to humanity, to the species.

I so identified with that motivation and was moved by his description. So my new company is called ‘LoveFrom’. It succinctly speaks to why I do what I do.

I think there has long been an expectation that Ive would one day leave Apple to pursue other endeavours, but it is no less stunning to see it happen. I’m intrigued to see what he does next; I have my apprehensions about what it means for the company’s design teams to be led by the COO.

It’s very strange to think that Apple’s design will once again be partly outsourced, even if it is to someone whose career has defined Apple.

Amazon’s Major Role in Universal Surveillance

Will Oremus, writing for Medium’s OneZero publication:

But Amazon’s public image as a cheerfully dependable “everything store” belies the vast and secretive behemoth that it has become  —  and how the products it’s building today could erode our privacy not just online but also in the physical world. Even as rival tech companies reassess their data practices, rethink their responsibilities, and call for new regulations, Amazon is doubling down on surveillance devices, disclaiming responsibility for how its technology is used, and dismissing concerns raised by academics, the media, politicians, and its own employees.

[…]

While the outcome of that case remains to be seen, the complaint represents just the tip of the iceberg. The Amazon of today runs enormous swaths of the public internet; uses artificial intelligence to crunch data for many of the world’s largest companies and institutions, including the CIA; tracks user shopping habits to build detailed profiles for targeted advertising; and sells cloud-connected, A.I.-powered speakers and screens for our homes. It acquired a company that makes mesh Wi-Fi routers that have access to our private Internet traffic. Through Amazon’s subsidiary Ring, it is putting surveillance cameras on millions of people’s doorbells and inviting them to share the footage with their neighbors and the police on a crime-focused social network. It is selling face recognition systems to police and private companies.

I am shocked at how unregulated markets tend to produce monopolies operating in unethical but profitable business categories with impunity.

Most Mapping Products Are Insufficient for Cyclists

Tom MacWright:

This might be because HERE, the number two provider of map technologies, was bought by a bunch of car companies. Or because Google is headquartered in the suburbs. Or that the financial world is fixated on opening the pandora’s box of self-driving cars.

But the end result is the same: bicycle and multimodal routing continues to be a toy, and driving directions keep getting better. We have nearly real-time reports of car crashes so that drivers can shave a few minutes off their commute. Blocked bike lanes are invisible to the system. Even lanes that are redirected into street traffic because of construction that lasts for months – they’re all the same. Google Maps lets you avoid tolls and highways in your car. It sees no difference between a sharrow, a protected bicycle lane, or a so-called bicycle-friendly road.

It could be worse — Apple doesn’t display cycling routes in their Maps app, and there are no options for mixed-mode transportation.

It’s telling of the differences in real-world priorities that cycling is among the most popular modes of transportation in much of the world, yet tech companies treat it as a niche issue for a handful of customers.

Scripting Languages to Be Removed in a Future Version of MacOS

From Apple’s Xcode 11 beta release notes:

Scripting language runtimes such as Python, Ruby, and Perl are included in macOS for compatibility with legacy software. In future versions of macOS, scripting language runtimes won’t be available by default, and may require you to install an additional package. If your software depends on scripting languages, it’s recommended that you bundle the runtime within the app.

Via Michael Tsai, who has put together a typically fantastic roundup of perspectives on this change:

This is a big deal in terms of philosophy; Apple once touted the built-in Unix tool suite as a Mac advantage. And it also means lots of practical changes; installers and AppleScripts can no longer lean on other scripting languages.

I’m not a Mac doom-and-gloomer; I think Apple is truly demonstrating that they are increasingly committed to the future of the Mac. But this is the sort of thing that shakes my confidence. So far, they have provided no justification for why they will one day no longer preinstall scripting languages. I guess there are perhaps some security benefits to their decision, and many developers assuredly took care of installing the requisite packages for themselves.

But something about this feels both arbitrary and inherently wrong. The beautiful thing about MacOS is that there’s a visually coherent interaction layer that most users spend most of their time in, but anyone — including a lunkhead like me — can fire up the Terminal at any time and run a script. Having that capability at one’s fingertips just below the surface, as well as programs like Homebrew and MacPorts, makes the Mac feel limitless. Making scripting a separate feature is limiting, even if only a little bit.

Update: Nicolas Zinovieff:

xcode-select —install

installs ruby on catalina

apparently the “extras” (python, ruby and the rest) are shipped with the other “dev” tools, like git

It would be really nice if this were a simple checkbox when installing a future version of MacOS, rather than requiring users to download and install Xcode, then run a shell command.

Piracy Could Make a Comeback in the Streaming Age

Brian Feldman, New York magazine:

Look, I’m not saying piracy is good, or even justifiable. I’m noting that the pop-culture industry is once again re-creating the conditions that allowed piracy to flourish in the first place. Piracy declined because the legal options for consuming media became easier than the illegal options. iTunes aggregated all of music within one storefront and eventually sold it DRM-free, and it made digital film rentals cheap. Before it started making its own stuff, Netflix aggregated thousands of films and shows and made them watchable at the push of a button (between 2010 and 2018, the number of films available on Netflix dropped 40 percent). Now the legal options for media consumption are once again becoming overly burdensome in both a financial and logistical sense. Even paying for a cable subscription won’t fix it. The best centralized place to find media is, once again, through piracy.

For a while there, it seemed like media companies had figured out what worked. They kept making music and movies and TV shows, and tech companies distributed them in a customer-friendly way. People loved it and paid for media again. But now that studios want to cut out the middle man — and since many of them are owned by ISPs who have cut out that middle man, too — they’re going to shoot themselves in the foot. They’re once again trying to control and restrict the whole stack, and it will have predictable results.

Update: I published too quickly here. Feldman doesn’t provide any evidence that piracy is coming back, only that it likely will due to the increasingly isolationist distribution policies of media companies. I have updated my headline accordingly.

One more thought that I had after publishing is that the media environment of 2019 is vastly different than that of 2009 in large part because of YouTube. Making videos for YouTube is, far more now than then, a legitimate career choice, with bigger budgets and audiences, and more credibility, than ever before. While people are unlikely to pirate public YouTube shows, channels that operate paid memberships with exclusive videos — whether through YouTube itself or a third-party platform like Patreon — might now be pirated as well.

The Airbnb Effect

Paris Martineau, Wired:

“If this happens by law you are not obligated to talk to them. Keep walking and do not answer their questions,” read the sign. “They will try to intimidate you and tell you that they need to check for fire hazards in the house but these are all tricks to get in the house … They might even tell you they are the police but this is illegal, they are not the police. DO NOT LET ANYONE IN THE HOUSE. Let’s keep Airbnb alive! :) ”

By the time a guest disobeyed the sign, things had gotten dire. On May 3, inspectors from the city building department and the Office of Special Enforcement found three guests from South Carolina accidentally locked into their room on the first floor, trapping them in the building; the inspectors also found two guests from Brooklyn and two guests from Singapore in different rooms on the second floor—all of whom had booked stays through Airbnb—according to affidavits filed by the inspectors.

The inspectors smelled gas and called the fire department, which found a gas leak, according to inspectors’ affidavits. The commissioner of the building department ordered the second floor vacated after a review determined that the conditions described in the inspectors’ report were “imminently perilous to life, public safety or the safety of the occupants or danger to property,” according to court documents. The illegally constructed extra rooms lacked required exits, sprinklers, and fire alarms, “rendering apartment unsafe to occupy,” the documents say.

Tom Cardoso and Matt Lundy, the Globe and Mail:

More than 31,000 homes across the country were rented out so often on Airbnb in 2018 that they were likely removed from the long-term rental supply, according to a groundbreaking study by McGill University researchers.

Put another way, that’s more than enough homes for everyone in North Vancouver.

As the popularity of short-term rentals has soared, the effect on rental supply in Canada’s cities, towns and rural areas has grown, according to the study. Shared exclusively with The Globe and Mail, the report is the most comprehensive analysis of Airbnb’s impact to date, and reveals the extent of the global rental service’s footprint, even as local officials implement rules that target the short-term rental industry.

The gig economy’s forecast looks less like a great way to make some money on the side using assets already at your disposal, and more like an anarchic app-connected version of industries that can’t really be “disrupted” to an extent beyond being made more dangerous with less job security for everyone involved.

Streaming Music Platforms Are Typically Designed in a Way That Is Incompatible with Classical Music

Jamie Powell, Financial Times:

In pop music, this is not so much a problem. The Beatles, for instance, did not write Hey Jude in 1821, with the best performance of the work coming in 1966 on a specific recording on limited release. At least, we think that’s the case.

However, this is frequently the case with classical music. And on Spotify, at least, it is difficult to filter by different inputs such as “artist” (read: composer), performance, time of recording, location or conductor. This makes finding classical music a slog.

This is fundamentally an issue with metadata — the detailed tags attached to each track. Much has been written about the wads of unclaimed wonga owed, or paid incorrectly, to artists, because of bad song tagging. See this excellent article from The Verge, as one example. However, for classical music this is an existential problem — detailed metadata are not just a means of organising content so people are paid, but is also is crucial to help discover it. IDAGIO, unsurprisingly, is trying to address this issue.

Improvements like these will likely take years of work, as labels usually input their own metadata. Even if the fields are available, there’s no guarantee they’ll follow through or even get it correct. Even music that a single-creator artist provided to a single label gets screwed up — check out Burial’s page on Apple Music and you’ll see duplicate copies of half his records.

By the way, Powell’s otherwise worthwhile piece ends with this damp complaint:

Form — in this case playlists and algorithms — dictating music’s content is nothing new. But there’s something unsettling about a several-hundred-year-old history of art being sold as the equivalent of a sonic massage. It seems nothing is immune from the digital era any more.

On the contrary, listeners are now being exposed to classical music in ways that are far more accessible and less prone to gatekeeping. Isn’t that great?

Previously: A critique of the way classical music is presented in Apple Music.

Catalyst Apps From MacOS Mojave Not Updated in Catalina

John Gruber on Twitter:

Catalyst apps on Catalina:

News and Stocks: still can’t open articles in their own windows.

Voice Memos: still can’t open more than one recording at a time.

Home: still looks like this.

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Apple today seeded the first beta of an upcoming macOS Catalina update to its public beta testing group, giving non-developers a chance to try out the software ahead of its fall public release.

Michael Tsai:

It seems to be essentially the same as Developer Beta 2, which is surprising both because that version is a bit rough and because it doesn’t contain the redesigned Catalyst apps that Craig Federighi said would be in the public beta.

Tsai seems to be referring to a story from Jason Hiner of CNet:

Good news. Apple is fixing them. At WWDC 2019 earlier this month, Apple announced Project Catalyst, which streamlines the process for all software makers to bring their own iOS apps to Mac. In an interview with CNET at WWDC, Apple software chief Craig Federighi confirmed that the four iOS apps for Mac released last year will get major updates based on the new technology in Project Catalyst. But he also revealed that the apps will get new designs to make them more Mac-like.

“They’re getting improvements,” Federighi said. “The underlying technology has matured … Some of that is super low-level stuff. Some people have dissected those apps and realized that they were sort of two halves: an AppKit half and a UIKit half, literally running in different processes. That’s all unified now. This has become much more of a native Mac framework … So automatically, the apps we built last year are upgraded.”

[…]

“We’ve looked at the design and features of some of those apps and said we can make this a bit more of a Mac experience through changes that are independent of the use of Catalyst, but are just design team decisions,” Federighi said. “When I read some of the initial reviews of those apps, people were saying, ‘Obviously this technology is causing them to do things that don’t feel Mac-like.’ Honestly, 90% of those were just decisions that designers made … People took that as ‘this feels iOS-y’ and therefore they thought it was a technology thing. Actually, it was a designer preference. So part of [the upgrade] is we said we’ve got to co-evolve with our user base around the aesthetics of the Mac experience. And so we made some adjustments to the apps.”

Andrew Cunningham:

I’m told the apps as-is are basically feature-complete. The reporting around that quote overstated/misunderstood what he was talking about, which was mainly the under-the-hood architectural stuff that’s already in the betas.

Hiner’s quotes from Federighi describing the improvements in Catalina for existing Catalyst apps is hard to interpret the way Cunningham’s sources seem to have done. Most of it reads as an explanation of how the underlying architectural improvements have made the MacOS apps, but there’s a clear nod to visual changes in that last sentences I quoted. Alas, there’s basically no difference between, say, News in Mojave and News in Catalina.

The new Catalyst-based Podcast app in MacOS Catalina is better visually — well, for the most part — but it still doesn’t feel like a Mac app, as Jason Snell noted about Music in his preview of the public beta:

Despite being sourced largely from iTunes, the Music and TV apps have been given a new coat of paint, with more colorful sidebars—and the Podcasts app has been designed to match, giving the three media apps a consistency that might surprise you if you think that apps built via Catalyst won’t feel the same as apps built explicitly for macOS.

Music feels like a version of iTunes that’s been heavily influenced by Apple’s decisions on iOS. Up Next and Lyrics panes now slide out over the interface, obscuring what’s behind—essentially the inverse of the old drawer metaphor in the early days of Mac OS X. It’s a decision that makes sense if you’ve got a single-window interface, but I don’t use my Mac in full screen mode and I didn’t mind the popover approach that iTunes took with those windows. The deck chairs have been rearranged on the top-level play bar — Now Playing content is now aligned left, with controls moved to the center and volume to the right.

Podcasts incorporates many of the same attributes, including the excellent consistency between the other MacOS media apps and the infuriating insistence on a monolithic single window app. Apple has been trending in this direction for a while now with pretty much every cross-platform app they’ve built — witness the transition in iWork apps from floating Inspectors to formatting panels. I was rather hoping things would move in the other direction: Mac apps should be capable of having multiple windows by default. At least let users detach panels where appropriate.

My unwarranted hope is that everything is getting rebuilt in SwiftUI and this is only transitional.

Update: Rene Ritchie also says that the four Catalyst apps from Mojave will be receiving little love in Catalina, so I’m not sure what Federighi meant by his comments.

In E.U. Antitrust Case Response, Apple Argues That Spotify Pays 15% Commission on Just 0.5% of Subscribers

To recap, Spotify complained to E.U. authorities back in March that it was anticompetitive for Apple to require subscriptions purchased through apps to use their own in-app purchase mechanism, thereby taking a cut of all subscriptions. Apple’s response to European antitrust authorities was made public recently.

Murray Stassen, Music Business Worldwide:

What’s more, says Apple, Spotify hasn’t paid any additional commission on a single subscriber obtained via the App Store for the past three years.

In fact, according to an argument seen by MBW, Apple says that Spotify only pays a 15% ‘app tax’ revenue share on just 0.5% of the latter’s 100 million premium subscribers worldwide.

That equates to around 680,000 customers acquired during 2014-16 when these subscribers used ‘In App Purchase’ – but Spotify apparently switched off subscriptions via the app after that.

In isolation, this almost feels like an acknowledgement of Spotify’s complaint. Spotify has lots of subscribers, but they have been forced to acquire the vast majority of them from outside of their iOS app because of Apple’s commission. However, even though I’m not sure how this is framed in context — frustratingly, Stassen does not post a copy of the response — this argument seems to be a way to emphasize that Apple’s commission on subscriptions has not been an impediment to the company’s growth.

What If All Ads Were Non-Creepy Ads Again?

Gabriel Weinberg, CEO of DuckDuckGo, in an op-ed for the New York Times:

I am reminded of the arguments made in the 1960s and ’70s about laws to reduce toxic emissions from cars. Companies profiting from less regulation lobbied against those laws, and yet, once they were enacted, Americans’ health improved, innovations such as the modern catalytic converter entered the market, and big companies met the new emissions targets without catastrophic expense. If we enact strong privacy regulation, I believe we can be similarly hopeful about the future of privacy.

Every time I suggest or state that laws and policies are needed to strengthen protections around data privacy, I inevitably get a host of emails and Twitter mentions from people who truly believe that non-regulatory measures are possible. I understand the hesitation, but I firmly disagree: self-regulatory measures simply aren’t working, and users are becoming nihilistic about privacy. Recent surveys have indicated that most people do not trust tech companies — particularly with their most sensitive data — but they also buy and use products that they distrust.

Instead of laws and rules, think of regulations like these as setting expectations. We should expect our data to remain private and only ours by default; any exceptions to that should be clearly explained, and we should be able to opt into our out of sharing any of our data at any time. We should expect that we are not being monitored or surveilled, whether by law enforcement or companies. We absolutely should expect not to have to hire a lawyer to review the terms of service for every food delivery app or ad-supported website we visit.

Theft With Permission

Last year, I wrote a couple of articles for the Sweet Setup with my recommendations for great apps to shoot and edit photos on your iPhone. I wanted to be thorough, so I downloaded a couple of dozen apps to choose from for each review. And, just about every time, I was asked to confirm that it was okay for that app to use the camera, then to confirm that it was okay to use my location to tag the photos, and then to confirm that it was okay to access the photo library. If the app shot video, I’d maybe also be asked to grant permission to use the microphone.

In a vacuum, these prompts for permission make sense, and it’s not like they haven’t been borne of purpose. The reason you have to confirm the use of your contacts is directly because of the Path app. If we didn’t have to confirm the use of location data, you can bet every ad-supported app would exploit it. But, since we have to permit the use of our location, surveillance-friendly developers have accepted that they should respect a user’s decision not to opt in. Right?

Of course not. The economy of surveillance capitalism has an insatiable appetite for data and, if they can’t get it legitimately, mischievous developers will figure out another way.

It’s possible to use Bluetooth beacons to approximate the location of a device. So, in iOS 13, apps are now required to ask permission to use Bluetooth, and those of us using the beta seeds so far have been pretty surprised at the number and variety of apps that have been requesting Bluetooth permissions.

Marco Arment retweeted a screenshot from Benjamin Herrin today that shows nearly fifty apps on his device that have so far thrown a Bluetooth prompt, including Lyft, IKEA, and Smoothie King. But a majority of the apps in that list are largely for media and, likely, implement Google’s Chromecast “sender” SDK, which lists the CoreBluetooth framework as a dependency. As a result, if you want to output video from your phone to your Chromecast device you, inherently, give permission for the app to estimate your location using Bluetooth. If you explicitly give an app permission to use your location, that app might hand it over to a third-party marketing and analytics firm for their own use. That’s exactly what happened to users of Accuweather’s app.

Apple does its part in trying to combat these insidious privacy violations. They have rules that disallow tracking users without their knowledge; they display permissions dialogs. But nobody’s fooling themselves: bad developers will always find a way to excavate user data. Just look at the myriad shitty uses of JavaScript on the web. Besides, asking Apple to somehow police the shuffling of user data from one service to another is a ridiculous proposition. I’m not feeling sorry for big tech companies; I’m being realistic.

This is why it’s so critical for the privacy of user data to be enshrined in law. We are being universally surveilled and there’s little we can do to change that. Permissions dialogs are far more than decoration, and it is useful to inform users about what technologies the app wishes to use, but they are no longer capable of bearing the burden hoisted upon them. Users — we — need enforceable and realistic legal protections.

Interviews with Contract Moderators for Facebook Describe PTSD and a Psychologically Debilitating Work Environment

Casey Newton, the Verge:

In February, I wrote about the secret lives of Facebook contractors in America. Since 2016, when the company came under heavy criticism for failing to prevent various abuses of its platform, Facebook has expanded its workforce of people working on safety and security around the world to 30,000. About half of those are content moderators, and the vast majority are contractors hired through a handful of large professional services firms. In 2017, Facebook began opening content moderation sites in American cities including Phoenix, Austin, and Tampa. The goal was to improve the accuracy of moderation decisions by entrusting them to people more familiar with American culture and slang.

Cognizant received a two-year, $200 million contract from Facebook to do the work, according to a former employee familiar with the matter. But in return for policing the boundaries of free expression on one of the internet’s largest platforms, individual contractors in North America make as little as $28,800 a year. They receive two 15-minute breaks and a 30-minute lunch each day, along with nine minutes per day of “wellness” time that they can use when they feel overwhelmed by the emotional toll of the job. After regular exposure to graphic violence and child exploitation, many workers are subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions.

Newton interviewed twelve Facebook moderators based at Cognizant’s Tampa office for this story, current and former, and even reading the descriptions of what they witnessed were enough to make me reel. I can’t imagine being required to sit through the minimum of fifteen seconds per video that they must view.

When I linked to Newton’s last piece about Cognizant, I wrote that this is a fundamental issue with the design of social networks. Automatic filtering — much of which, by the way, is an illusion — is inaccurate and will likely always be so, but subjecting low-wage contractors to a firehose of the worst of humanity is unconscionable. I’m not sure paying them more would help with the psychological toll, but I certainly wouldn’t argue against a pay bump. Cognizant or Facebook should be providing them with therapy, free of charge and without stigma. But something must change, too, with the very design of platforms like Facebook to make it harder for people to share and glorify disturbing, discriminatory, and abhorrent material.

One more thing from Newton’s article that requires a highlight:

Florida law does not require employers to offer sick leave, and so Cognizant workers who feel ill must instead use personal leave time.

It is a failure of ethics for executives and lawmakers if employees cannot expect time to recover from illness.

Update: Manton Reece:

Social networks like Facebook (and Twitter) are designed to reward the sensational video. The timeline algorithm, “like” counts, and quick re-sharing all contribute to surfacing both the best and worst content. Whatever drives engagement.

Until the tie is cut between engagement and revenue, I don’t think this will be solved. By that, I mean that I don’t think this will be solved — at least not by these incumbents.

See Also: Page 35 of Sarah Jeong’s “The Internet of Garbage” (PDF).

No-Click Google Searches

Keach Hagey, Rob Copeland, and Sam Schechner, Wall Street Journal:

Google’s competitors are pressing antitrust enforcers to look far and wide at the company’s practices. Perhaps the most common complaint against Google around the world in recent years is that it uses its search engine to privilege its own content at the expense of its competitors’.

For example, it created new design features like the “knowledge graph,” which populates the boxes that appear at the top of search, often answering a query without requiring the user to click through to another website. In March, 62% of Google searches on mobile were “no-click” searches, according to research firm Jumpshot. Google has argued that if consumers don’t find the rearranged content useful, they won’t click on it.

Via Michael Tsai, who also links to a tweet from Kyle Howells showing a Google search on his iPad that displayed only an information box, with an additional tap required to see further search results.

The proportion of people who, Jumpshot claims, do not click or tap on a search result on mobile is unsurprising to me. Google’s mobile search results page often displays a knowledge panel that occupies the entire height of the viewport. This may be enough to answer the query; however, it’s frequently inaccurate, and there’s little indication that different results are available which may better answer the searcher’s question.

See Also: Bad products selected by Amazon showing the inherent power of recommendations; inaccurate Featured Snippets; how Featured Snippets killed Celebrity Net Worth; and, recently, the wholesale copying of lyrics from Genius.

Consortium Led by Facebook Announces Libra, a Digital Currency

Charlotte Jee, MIT Technology Review:

Libra will be available for Messenger and WhatsApp users around the world, and anyone who downloads the (yet-to-launch) app. Facebook says it has the lofty goal of bringing financial services to the 1.7 billion around the world who still don’t have bank accounts. Libra will let you send money to almost anyone with a smartphone, as easily as a text message and at “low to no cost,” Facebook says.

The Libra team will be governed by a nonprofit foundation called Calibra, based in Switzerland. Facebook already has backing for the project from 27 organizations, including Uber, Visa, Spotify, Vodafone, Mastercard, and nonprofit Women’s World Banking. Each of these partners has agreed to invest at least $10 million in the project.

Mike Isaac and Nathaniel Popper, New York Times:

Initially, the Calibra subsidiary will offer little more than a wallet to hold and spend Libra. When Libra is released next year, the plan is to make the wallet available to the billions of people who have accounts with Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.

If Libra catches on, company officials said, Facebook’s Calibra could offer financial services to customers, such as lending and investing.

To spur adoption, the Libra Association, which will manage the digital token, will help offer financial incentives to merchants and customers, like free Libra for opening a wallet, or discounts on Libra transactions for merchants who accept the currency.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, the Guardian:

The long game here is one for which Facebook has long been preparing. There is only one other service in the world that threatens Facebook’s global domination. WeChat, a social network primarily used in China, has offered popular payment systems for many years. In China, one must use WeChat for many transactions. If WeChat moves beyond its current market and challenges Facebook globally, Facebook better had offer a similar, perhaps better payment and money transfer system. Building on the vast market for remittances is the obvious way forward.

In a shocking twist of events here, I’m not particularly worried about privacy implications. Facebook has adequately convinced me that it’s not treating this as another surveillance experiment. Nor am I specifically troubled by Facebook having any power over this currency — there are twenty-six other companies with equal voting power. But I am deeply concerned by how much power this gives a consortium with power far exceeding its expected responsibility. I’ve been thinking about this in two different ways:

  1. Let’s pretend that it’s not a currency, but is instead effectively a competitor to PayPal or Apple Cash: an escrow service for money sent through its proprietary channels.

  2. Let’s pretend that it has nothing to do with cryptocurrencies generally and consider it a private currency in the vein of a scrip.

Neither one sounds appealing to me given the inherent power of a backer with over two billion users. For comparison, PayPal has a couple hundred million users; Apple Cash is limited to a U.S. audience, and is effectively a bank card on the back-end. Both are little more than a temporary holding place for money. But Facebook’s power means that Libra funds could be more widely traded and accepted as their own currency, despite being privately-backed by a couple of dozen companies.

What’s more, targeting people in developing nations sounds noble and could be genuinely useful, but it also smacks of neocolonialism. What happens if this currency fails to gain adequate traction? What happens if it succeeds in gaining traction, and now small, local economies in developing nations are dependent on venture capital firms and credit card companies in the United States for their functional base of trade?

I get the eagerness to disrupt something as big as the global financial system. But you don’t have to trust the system to worry about a small consortium of mostly-American companies inventing a private and poorly regulated psuedo-currency.

Update: Max Read, New York magazine:

[…] Facebook’s biggest problem right now — the problem that lurks behind stagnant user growth in Europe and North America — is that it’s just not essential. Like any megaplatform, Facebook wants to be infrastructure: a service so important to daily life that most people have no choice but to use it. But Facebook in 2019 is increasingly easy for Americans and Europeans to quit without particular consequence, in a way that Google, say, isn’t.

Libra could, if it takes off, change that. Payment infrastructure isn’t just (potentially) more lucrative than social infrastructure, it’s much less easy to replicate, either on the business side or on the consumer side. It’s pretty easy to quit Facebook, the app where you fight with your childhood neighbor about politics. It’s much more difficult to quit Facebook, the app you use to pay your rent.

Or, potentially, the app you get paid in.

‘Amazon’s Choice’ Recommends Some Obviously Crappy Products

Nicole Nguyen, Buzzfeed News:

When you’re looking at a search result with hundreds of options on Amazon, the “Amazon’s Choice” label may give you a sense of relief. The label’s name and prominent placement seem to imply that listings with the “Amazon’s Choice” designation — even more authoritative than a simple “Best-Selling” badge — are a curated selection of products reviewed and tested by the company, and highlighted for shoppers looking for similar products. But “Amazon’s Choice” isn’t that at all, and here’s the disappointing news: It’s a label automatically awarded to listings by an algorithm based on customer reviews, price, and whether the product is in stock. And those choices Amazon’s software makes aren’t always reliable — in fact, sometimes they’re Amazon-recommended crap.

I saved this to Pinboard on Friday and forgot to read it over the weekend, so I had completely forgotten about it by the time I got around to it today. I assumed that there would be a handful of examples of products that kind of suck — maybe a shirt that frequently ripped or something along the lines of that one West Elm couch. But it’s so much more than that, and far worse.

If we set aside the galling ethical faults with labelling trash as a “choice” product, this recommendations system cannot be good for Amazon’s reputation. They’re giving the impression that the company stands behind terrible products.

We’re Apparently Scanning Our TVs for Viruses Now

Jon Porter, the Verge:

Samsung has reminded owners of its smart TVs that they should be regularly scanning for malware using its built-in virus scanning software. “Prevent malicious software attacks on your TV by scanning for viruses on your TV every few weeks,” a (now deleted) tweet from the company’s US support account read alongside a video attachment that demonstrated the laborious process.

Karl Bode, Techdirt

The problem is if you’ve shopped for a TV lately, it’s effectively impossible to find a “dumb” television that simply passes on signal from other devices. As in: they’re simply not available at any meaningful scale, even if you were willing to pay a significant premium for them. Many people certainly are; most embedded TV OS platforms are kind of terrible, and users would rather buy a new streaming box (Roku, Chromecast, Apple TV) every few years than be forced to buy an entirely new TV set because the embedded streaming hardware becomes outdated (something TV vendors clearly would benefit from).

While some set vendors might argue that dumb televisions don’t exist because there’s no market demand for them, the fact is they haven’t even bothered to try. And they haven’t bothered to try because they’re fixated on accelerating the TV upgrade cycle and collecting and selling your personal usage data to a universe of partners. Which again, might not be quite as bad if these companies had done a good job actually securing and encrypting this data, or designing television OS’ that didn’t feel like they were barfed up from the bowels of 1992 GUI design hell.

One of the truly great mistakes of the past fifty years or so — but particularly within the last ten — is treating data as inherently financially valuable. I think we’re only just beginning to see the repercussions of that choice in Facebook’s full house of scandals and the fallout from the breaches of Equifax, et al. It’s going to get worse.

Happy Monday, everybody.

Huawei and Samsung Issue Updates on the Status of Their Folding Phones

Arjun Kharpal, CNBC:

A spokesperson for the Chinese technology giant told CNBC on Friday that the company is trying to launch the Huawei Mate X globally, focusing on markets that are rolling out next-generation mobile networks known as 5G. The Mate X, which starts at around 2,299 euros or roughly $2,600, is a 5G-capable device.

The Mate X was unveiled in February but has yet to go on sale. Huawei had initially targeted a mid-2019 launch date and in April, Chinese media reported that it was looking at June. But the spokesperson confirmed the official launch will take place in September. He said that the company was doing extra testing with mobile carriers around the world and developers to make sure their apps work when the device is fully unfolded.

Huawei’s spokesperson said the company was more “cautious” after Samsung’s foldable device, the Galaxy Fold, began to break when tested by reviewers in April. Samsung and some of the carriers selling the Galaxy Fold have canceled pre-orders that consumers had already placed.

So, let me get this straight: Huawei’s spokesperson says the company is concerned about the frequent device damage sustained by reviewers of the Samsung Galaxy Fold, so they’re going to be more cautious in their testing of apps? Sure.

Meanwhile, Song Su-hyun of the Korea Herald reports on the delayed launch of the Samsung Galaxy Fold:

There have been rumors that the foldable device would be unveiled to Korean media in June and released on the market in July.

Last week, Samsung’s smartphone business chief Koh Dong-jin told a Korean media outlet that the phone would arrive before July.

However, according to Samsung and its partners, the schedule of a media event for the foldable phone in Korea and its official launch have not been set yet.

“If we are running such a media event this month, we should be doing something by now,” said a Samsung official. “Nothing has progressed since the April delay.”

It remains to be seen if it’s possible for Apple to catch up.