Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for April, 2021

Logitech Discontinues Its Harmony Universal Remote Control Line

Ben Patterson, TechHive:

Well, the other shoe finally dropped. After years of speculation about the fate of its Harmony line of universal remotes, Logitech has announced that it will stop making the devices effective immediately.

In a post on its support site, Logitech said that its remaining stock of Harmony remotes will continue to be available through retail channels until stocks run out, and that it will continue to support the remote for the foreseeable future.

If you have older A/V equipment, this is probably frustrating. Harmony, acquired by Logitech in 2004, dominated the market on universal remote controls for years, and also provides home automation stuff. Its more recent models require a server-side infrastructure, not just IR programming, so when Logitech decides to shut that system down, those remotes will likely stop working. According to Jason Knott at CEPro, support will be offered “in perpetuity”, but I doubt that. I give it a few years.

So, this is certainly a difficult situation for those who own Logitech’s Harmony hardware and have relied upon it for years. But Matt Stoller has a bad take on it that I would also like to address:

Logitech’s products are pretty, but the actual quality of the software is terrible, which is the classic sign of a marketing-driven organization run by lazy executives. Logitech is a monopolist in the universal remote control space, which it acquired in 2004 when it purchased a firm called Harmony. “Their market dominance has been ironclad because of their database: they have infrared codes for hundreds of thousands of devices, from brand-name TVs to random HDMI doodads on page fourteen of Amazon. For obvious reasons, they haven’t open-sourced this database.”

I say ‘was’ because Logitech is actually killing the entire product line now. Their CEO says it is because of competition from streaming, but that’s nonsense, they’ve wanted to get rid of the product line since 2013. As my source says, “if Harmony were its own company, I highly doubt they’d decide to shut down due to abject hopelessness.” Now the database will probably be destroyed, and people will have to redesign their systems to no longer include a universal remote. There’s also a security issue. :Since much of the Harmony software is cloud-based, countless systems may become inoperable, or impossible to update as new devices (e.g. the PS5) aren’t added to the database, or else vulnerable to hacking as security issues go unpatched.”

The punctuation in this excerpt is unclear, so I am unsure whether the “database being destroyed” claim is Stoller’s or his source’s. I think the colon in front of “since” was supposed to be an opening quotation mark. Nevertheless, the impression Stoller leaves is that this is the end of universal remote controls generally because Logitech is closing down its monopoly — and that is simply false on several levels.

To be fair, I am not a universal remotes expert by any means. I do have a couple of salient counterpoints that, I feel, undercut Stoller’s dramatic reading.

For one, there are many other companies that maintain databases of IR remote control codes, not just Logitech, so those codes are not disappearing off the face of the planet just because Harmony is going away. Some of those databases are also open to the public, like this one on GitHub. There are also some other universal options that, like those from Logitech, have those codes in a database and do not require individual programming — Logitech’s Harmony line seems to be the default pick among buyers’ guides, but Joanna Stern’s choice was the Ray Super Remote and TechHive likes a Caavo model. Most importantly, the universal control problem is slowly fading as HDMI CEC becomes more widely used and different remotes can be used with different equipment.

I do not have some sort of wild home theatre setup so a universal remote has never felt justified to me. The market does seem to have been dominated by Logitech’s products, but it is unclear why that is the case. It is not as though there are no other companies that produce universal remotes that work with audio-visual products from a bunch of different manufacturers, as well as smart home gadgets and streaming boxes. But while Logitech has firmly dominated the market for fifteen years and its absence will surely leave a void, that does not make Stoller’s take any more accurate.

Update: I have heard from a few people about their terrible experiences with CEC, and I feel compelled to half-correct half-clarify my remarks above. The correction is that CEC is not itself a driving force for why universal remotes are becoming less relevant. Smart TVs are a far bigger influence on that market.

For clarity, I also want to separate what CEC promises from what it is currently delivering. CEC seems to be a minefield of problems right now, and it is unclear that it will get better. But it does not seem inherently problematic by design. Its implementation is, from what I have read, all over the place, which makes it unreliable and kind of a crapshoot. So, in theory, CEC is a fine standard that, for many people, should eliminate the need for a Harmony remote; in practice so far, it is a small nightmare.

Ad Attribution Gives False Hope

I read these two stories from the Wall Street Journal today, back to back, and I think that is how you should also read them. You may be able to find these in Apple News Plus, but I also recommend checking out your local public library’s website — many will have a way of accessing paywalled newspapers like the Journal.

First, Christopher Mims reports on the impact felt by businesses owners as Facebook makes changes to its advertising attribution in advance of iOS 14.5:

Before, even the smallest business could throw as little as a hundred bucks at a tiny ad campaign on Facebook or Instagram, and get detailed and immediate feedback. Now they will have to spend substantially more — thousands of dollars at least — to show their ads to a larger audience, because the targeting will be less precise, says Christian Lovrecich, founder of PixlFeed Media, an e-commerce marketing agency.

[…]

“Even though in the short term this is probably not a great thing for small and medium-size businesses, in the long term it’s probably for the best,” says Solo Stove’s Mr. Merris. He expects innovators to find ways to build “wonderful personalized experiences that generate good return on investment, while getting around some of these hotter topics like data collection.”

There is little proof that greater perceived precision in targeting and attribution leads to lower spending or improved results.

Gilad Edelman, Wired:

Meanwhile, the ability to track users wherever they go tends to shift ad revenue from higher quality sites to less reputable ones. “The way the adtech system works is, it follows the reader from Wired.com all the way down to the cheapest possible place, the basement bottom-feeders on the internet, and will serve you the ads there,” explained Nandini Jammi, a former product marketer and co-founder of Sleeping Giants, which pressures brands not to advertise on sites that promote hate or bigotry. Jammi pointed me to worldlifestyle.com, whose homepage features a random jumble of years-old articles on celebrities, self-help, and cute animals. It’s a content farm: a site designed not for human eyes, but to make money by harvesting ad clicks from bots.

[…]

Many small businesses, especially direct-to-consumer, do use behavioral ads to build their customer base. David Heinemeier Hansson told me his company, Basecamp, had success with a Facebook ad campaign in 2017. “Compared to everything else we did online, they were the most effective,” he said. “Targeted advertising works.” (Hansson added that he gave up on Facebook advertising anyway because he finds it objectionable.)

And yet, if behavioral advertising were such a boon to entrepreneurship, you might expect it to have spurred a wave of startup growth. Even more than a decade since the recession, though, both the startup rate and the share of Americans working for small businesses are at historic lows—in large part thanks to the rise of monopolistic companies like Facebook and Google, according to many experts. Microtargeting might help some small enterprises get ahead, but that doesn’t mean it’s a boon overall. As with any business strategy, there are both winners and losers.

Ad tech companies love to put lots of numbers in front of customers because it gives the illusion of accuracy. The truth is that most of the numbers are fake. Ads are still targeted fairly imprecisely despite a wealth of user data — many of the ads I see are inexplicably in French — and they are not revenue goldmines. They are just the new standard and it will take some time to adjust. Merris, the primary individual profiled in Mims’ article, is right. This is going to be difficult for some people and businesses to adapt to, but it is the right thing to do.

Here’s the other Journal article I read, from Jeff Horwitz and Keach Hagey:

Google acknowledged in its responses that it had agreed to make “commercially reasonable efforts” to ensure that Facebook was able to identify 80% of mobile users and 60% of desktop users, excluding users of Apple’s Safari web browser, in ad auctions. The Texas complaint alleges that this activity appears “to allow Facebook to bid and win more often in auctions.”

Google further acknowledged in the filing that Jedi Blue required Facebook to spend $500 million or more in Google’s Ad Manager or AdMob auctions in the fourth year of the agreement, and that Facebook committed to making commercially reasonable efforts to win 10% of the auctions in which it had bids.

In reality, small businesses are handing over huge sums of money to Google and Facebook as they rig the online advertising market and scoop up unfathomable amounts of tracking information. The tracking is real; the targeting is hit-or-miss.

Keyboard Shortcuts in Many Web and Electron Apps Do Not Work Correctly With Non-ANSI Keyboard Layouts

Speaking of bad keyboard shortcuts, here’s Thomas Kainrad (via Michael Tsai) explaining how web apps from big-name tech companies are not fully compatible with his German keyboard layout:

This is most annoying when the most important keyboard shortcuts are inaccessible. A very common shortcut is / for accessing search functionality. Unfortunately, there is no /-key on most international layouts. Adding modifiers to produce this key with your layout rarely helps. For example, on my German layout, / is produced via Shift+7. Most web applications will ignore this. Similarly painful is when Electron apps use [ and ] for navigating backwards and forwards.

[…]

I want to be clear, broken keyboard shortcuts are not a law of nature. It is possible to implement web application shortcuts so that they can be typed with any layout. It shouldn’t be an excuse that even some of the most popular apps do not get it right.

Kainrad focuses on web applications partly because of how popular they are and partly because of their often flawed interpretation of key presses.

I do not understand why so many Electron apps, in particular, have invented their own shortcuts instead of doing their best to copy the system defaults. Most MacOS shortcuts are a combination of modifier keys and letters of the alphabet. But Apple is not perfect, either: the German version of that page indicates that the shortcut for showing and hiding the status bar in Finder windows, for example, is Command+/.

As I was digging around on this topic, I found a bunch of threads from German and Swiss German and French and Croatian Mac users who found some of the universal keyboard shortcuts difficult or impossible to type without fully switching layouts. But I also found an excellent eight year old post from Daniel Hoelbling-Inzko with a keyboard layout file that can be used with Ukelele to remap keys on the fly. I have not tried it myself but I am hopeful it might help those with non-U.S. keyboards switch layouts more easily.

Apple Keeps iMessage Exclusive to Its Products Because It Is an Effective Differentiator

In a court filing from Epic in support of its lawsuit against Apple, many Apple executives are on the record in emails stating the obvious: iMessage is not offered on non-Apple platforms because it is a compelling exclusive feature. For some reason, this is being seen as a shocking admission.

Sam Rutherford, Gizmodo:

In one quote dating back to 2013, Eddy Cue — who is now Apple’s senior vice president for internet software and services — said that Apple “could have made a version [of iMessage] on Android that worked with iOS,” providing the possibility that “users of both platforms would have been able to exchange messages with one another seamlessly.”

Sadly, it seems multiple Apple execs were concerned that doing so would make it too easy for iPhone owners to leave the Apple ecosystem, with Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi, having said, “iMessage on Android would simply serve to remove [an] obstacle to iPhone families giving their kids Android phones” — a sentiment Epic’s brief says was also shared by Phil Schiller, who back then was in charge of overseeing Apple’s App Store.

[…]

Unfortunately, while these testimonies seem to be pretty damning for Apple, it’s unclear if these revelations will force Apple to reconsider porting iMessage over to Android in the future. But at least now we know for sure why it never happened before.

It is worth pointing out that the “lock-in” described by Apple executives is not a literal lock preventing users from switching to another platform, nor is iMessage mandatory. You can stick to SMS on an iPhone if you want, and you can disconnect from iMessage if you do not want to use it.1

So how is this “damning”, exactly? Plenty of companies offer exclusive features that make it emotionally difficult to choose a different platform, while also having disadvantages. Google can show off the wide selection of phones that run Android, but Apple has made a choice to keep iOS to its own hardware, so it cannot make the same sales pitch. Conversely, Google cannot market the chaos of messaging apps on Android as an advantage, but Apple can show that iMessage is simple, works spectacularly, and requires no configuration.

This isn’t even new information. After WWDC 2016, Walt Mossberg asked Apple about the same topic:

When I asked a senior Apple executive why iMessage wasn’t being expanded to other platforms, he gave two answers. First, he said, Apple considers its own user base of one billion active devices big enough to provide a large enough data set for any possible AI learning the company is working on. And second, having a superior messaging platform that only worked on Apple devices would help sales of those devices — the company’s classic (and successful) rationale for years.

Is iMessage a compelling reason to buy more stuff from Apple? Sure — depending on where you live and how attached you are to other devices. But I fail to see the evil in a differentiating service or feature.


  1. I know there have been problems with Apple’s disconnecting tool. I do not think it is a case of Apple making things deliberately difficult. It is incompetence, if anything, which is not nefarious but also not an excuse. This service should be entirely reliable. ↩︎

Wix Is Running a Bizarre Ad Campaign Mocking WordPress

Matt Mullenweg:

Wix, the website builder company you may remember from stealing WordPress code and lying about it, has now decided the best way to gain relevance is attacking the open source WordPress community in a bizarre set of ads. They can’t even come up with original concepts for attack ads, and have tried to rip-off of Apple’s Mac vs PC ads, but tastelessly personify the WordPress community as an absent, drunken father in a therapy session. 🤔

[…]

Wix is a for-profit company with a valuation that peaked at around 20 billion dollars, and whose business model is getting customers to pay more and more every year and making it difficult to leave or get a refund. (Don’t take my word for it, look at their investor presentations.) They are so insecure that they are also the only website creator I’m aware of that doesn’t allow you to export your content, so they’re like a roach motel where you can check in but never check out. Once you buy into their proprietary stack you’re locked in, which even their support documentation admits.

Much like those recent Intel ads that also parody the Mac vs. PC campaign, Wix’s ads do not make much sense if you give them even a little extra thought. Take the one where a low-budget Bryan Cranston, playing the part of WordPress, collapses to the floor under the weight of forgotten maintenance and implores the site owner to switch to Wix. Sounds promising, except it is comparing a self-hosted software package to a managed platform, so it is not honest. Maintenance is not inherent to WordPress and, if you would prefer not to deal with it, there are managed options available through Automattic and many third-party providers.

If these ads are merely comparing the ease of a managed platform against something self-hosted, there’s no shortage of those, either. Squarespace is a pretty good choice, Shopify is terrific for commerce, and I have heard good things about Webflow. But the advantage of all of those — and WordPress.com — is that they let you take your website with you if you would like to switch to another platform. Wix does not.

I am not sure what these mean-spirited ads are supposed to achieve, but they do not make me want to recommend Wix to anyone. Quite the opposite. Other platforms are for nice people.

Third-Party Accessories Can Now Use Apple’s ‘Find My’ Network

Apple:

Apple today introduced the updated Find My app, allowing third-party products to use the private and secure finding capabilities of Apple’s Find My network, which comprises hundreds of millions of Apple devices. The Find My network accessory program opens up the vast and global Find My network to third-party device manufacturers to build products utilizing the service, so their customers can use the Find My app to locate and keep track of the important items in their lives. New products that work with the Find My app from Belkin, Chipolo, and VanMoof will be available beginning next week.

Belkin’s first product compatible with Find My is a set of wireless earbuds; the Chipolo product is a small tag you can attach to luggage or key rings. Sure seems like there is plenty of room for first-party versions of both.

Perhaps the most notable omission from this list of participants is Tile, but it should not be surprising that it is not in the program. For one, it is a member of the Coalition for App Fairness, a group of developers putting pressure on lawmakers to regulate app marketplaces because of Apple’s policies. For another, Tile has accused Apple of illegal anticompetitive practices by asking users to confirm background location tracking.

But the biggest hangup Tile faces is that the Find My spec is intentionally restrictive on privacy grounds. Rene Ritchie posted a few of the privacy considerations on Twitter today, but there was more information in the draft documentation released last summer. More relevant to Tile is that the spec prohibited locator devices from using Apple’s Find My network and a third-party network. Tile has its own network, so it would have to choose — or let users choose — whether specific tags are synced to Find My or to Tile’s network, not both. The spec is now locked away as part of Apple’s MFi program, so I cannot see the latest version, but I do not imagine this rule has changed.

Also, the badge in the photo of the VanMoof bike in Apple’s press release — the one that reads “Locate with Apple Find My” — is so much nicer than the MFi badge for packaging.

Movie Studios Know Streaming Service Exclusivity Is Untenable for Audiences

Katharine Trendacosta of the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

Instead of building better services — faster internet access, better interfaces, better content — the model is all based on exclusive control. Many Americans don’t have a choice in their broadband provider, a monopoly ISPs jealously guard rather than building a service so good we’d pick it on purpose. Instead of choosing the streaming service with the best price or library or interface, we have to pay all of them. Our old favorites are locked down, so we can’t access everything in one place anymore. New things set in our favorite worlds are likewise locked down to certain services, and sometimes even to certain devices. And creators we like? Also locked into exclusive contracts at certain services.

And the thing is, we know from history that this isn’t what consumers want. We know from the ’30s and ’40s that this kind of vertical integration is not good for creativity or for audiences. We know from the recent past that convenient, reasonably-priced, and legal internet services are what users want and will use. So we very much know that this system is untenable and anticompetitive, that it can encourage copyright infringement and drives the growth of reactionary draconian copyright laws that hurt innovators and independent creators. We also know what works.

The golden age of streaming really is behind us. But if movie studios come to their senses, there could be a renaissance of appreciation for streaming services, replacing the exhaustion of yet another monthly charge on our credit card bill.

Facebook Isn’t Sorry for Letting Someone Steal Personal Details of Half a Billion Users

Elizabeth Culliford, Reuters:

Facebook Inc did not notify the more than 530 million users whose details were obtained through the misuse of a feature before 2019 and recently made public in a database, and does not currently have plans to do so, a company spokesman said on Wednesday.

[…]

The Facebook spokesman said the social media company was not confident it had full visibility on which users would need to be notified. He said it also took into account that users could not fix the issue and that the data was publicly available in deciding not to notify users. Facebook has said it plugged the hole after identifying the problem at the time.

Graham Cluley:

Nowhere in Facebook’s post will you find the word “sorry.” Nowhere in Facebook’s post will you see an apology.

So I can assume that Facebook isn’t sorry. It doesn’t even say that it’s going to contact the half a billion users who have had their details leaked onto the internet – not because of the users’ own fault, but because of Facebook’s incompetence and lack of care.

There has been plenty of reporting around this latest data dump, but Facebook’s repeated breaches of security and user trust should not be so easily dismissed by the company. It is mostly treating this as a public relations problem that will blow over, which is unconscionable.

Google’s Primary Apps Now Feature Privacy Labels

Taha Broach, the 8-Bit:

After an almost four-month-long wait, Google has updated the App Store pages of all of its popular apps with Apple’s Privacy Nutrition labels. This news comes as reports suggest Google might be preparing its own privacy nutrition labels for individual app pages on the Play Store.

Today, Google updated the App Store page of its last popular app — Google Photos — to reflect the app’s tracking practices to users who are about to download the app.

At the beginning of January, Google said that it would be rolling these out “this week or the next week”. It’s pretty embarrassing that it took one of the world’s most valuable companies until the second week of April to tick more-or-less every box for the personally-linked data it collects.

Phone Numbers From That 2019 Facebook Data Breach Are Now in ‘Have I Been Pwned?’

Troy Hunt has added the half a billion phone numbers associated with a 2019 Facebook breach to Have I Been Pwned?, but there’s more:

The origin of all this data is still not clear. The initial set I was given adhered to a very consistent format, the set in broader circulation is more varied suggesting they’re possibly from multiple sources. Some people have suggested WhatsApp or Instagram as potential additional sources, but I’ve seen nothing to substantiate those claims.

Facebook are yet to put out a clear position on this. They’ve alluded to a 2019 incident being the root cause, but that doesn’t go far enough to explain the data in circulation. There’s a vacuum of information right now, and that vacuum is being filled with by a lot of speculation.

Facebook published a short press release from Mike Clark regarding this breach:

We believe the data in question was scraped from people’s Facebook profiles by malicious actors using our contact importer prior to September 2019. This feature was designed to help people easily find their friends to connect with on our services using their contact lists.

According to BBC reporter Joe Tidy, there were two large leaks of Facebook data in 2019. Tidy points to a September 2019 article in City A.M. as an example of one, while the other was in April 2019. According to Facebook, this weekend’s release consists of data from neither.

Also, for what it is worth, this was about the same time period during which “hundreds of millions” of Facebook and Instagram users’ passwords were stored in plain text in internal logs for years. These incidents are not connected by anything other than the company’s sloppiness, but it indicates a unique level of deviance. If there is one thing that Facebook is most notable for, it is arguably that its size and ubiquity have granted it a license to be shameless.

According to Anja Karadeglija of the National Post, Facebook never reported this breach to Canadian privacy officials as required. Facebook also said that the unauthorized scraping of user data stopped a month before GDPR regulations took effect so it also did not report this to European authorities. Natasha Lomas at TechCrunch reports that Irish regulators are investigating whether that is true.

Update: Lily Hay Newman, Wired:

Facebook says it did not notify users about the 2019 contact importer exploitation precisely because there are so many troves of semipublic user data — taken from Facebook itself and other companies — out in the world. Additionally, attackers needed to supply phone numbers and manipulate the feature to spit out the corresponding name and other data associated with it for the exploit to work, which Facebook argues means that it did not expose the phone numbers itself. “It is important to understand that malicious actors obtained this data not through hacking our systems but by scraping it from our platform prior to September 2019,” Clark wrote Tuesday. The company aims to draw a distinction between exploiting a weakness in a legitimate feature for mass scraping and finding a flaw in its systems to grab data from its backend. Still, the former is a vulnerability exploitation.

Automatic contact matching remains a glaring privacy and security vulnerability. Facebook built a database of about a quarter of people on Earth and then, for a long time, allowed anyone to associate phone numbers — something that has a predictable format — with names, photos, email addresses, and more.

‘New Outlook’ for Mac Has an Objectively Stupid Keyboard Shortcut for Discarding Messages

This episode of Josh Calvetti’s excellent “Sweating the Small Stuff” series is infuriating.

Microsoft has two different versions of Outlook in the Outlook for Mac app. One of the keyboard shortcuts changed in New Outlook compared to the “classic” Outlook app is +Shift+D. In Apple’s Mail app, this is the shortcut for sending a message. In New Outlook, it discards the message you have just finished writing — without warning or confirmation — where it disappears into the aether.

It is one thing to repurpose a different keyboard shortcut; it is entirely stupid to use a task completing shortcut in a circumstance that causes instant data loss. I do not understand why anyone would want a way to discard the message they are writing without warning, but it should not be this way.

Anyway, go watch Calvetti’s video and then all of us who use Outlook for work can be upset about this together.

Update: This keyboard shortcut is, thankfully, being changed in a future version of New Outlook to +Escape.

Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty

I wanted to link to a couple of additional pieces related to today’s essay by Lauren Goode. Eric Meyer (via Andy Baio) wrote about what he called “inadvertent algorithmic cruelty” in 2014 after the death of his daughter:

Algorithms are essentially thoughtless. They model certain decision flows, but once you run them, no more thought occurs. To call a person “thoughtless” is usually considered a slight, or an outright insult; and yet, we unleash so many literally thoughtless processes on our users, on our lives, on ourselves.

Where the human aspect fell short, at least with Facebook, was in not providing a way to opt out. The Year in Review ad keeps coming up in my feed, rotating through different fun-and-fabulous backgrounds, as if celebrating a death, and there is no obvious way to stop it. Yes, there’s the drop-down that lets me hide it, but knowing that is practically insider knowledge. How many people don’t know about it? Way more than you think.

It is also presumptuous to assume that most photos represent memories that a user would like to see right now.

Stephen Hackett also shared his story:

Over the last several years, I’ve been dealing with something similar. While not a broken engagement, I’ve been stopped in my tracks any time I come across — or am shown by a computer — photos of the time before our oldest son was diagnosed with brain cancer. When a photo would show up, I would tell my phone I didn’t want to be reminded of it anymore, but it would still be burned into my brain hours or even days later.

Hackett’s piece ends on a welcome, positive note — through therapy, he is working to overcome feeling stuck in these traumatic memories.

These are two very welcome pieces. For what it is worth, I think both these writers — and Goode — are very brave for sharing their stories. I appreciate it.

The Internet Does Not Let You Forget

In Wired, Lauren Goode wrote about how the apps and services she uses will not let her forget about the wedding she cancelled:

[…] The internet is clever, but it’s not always smart. It’s personalized, but not personal. It lures you in with a timeline, then fucks with your concept of time. It doesn’t know or care whether you actually had a miscarriage, got married, moved out, or bought the sneakers. It takes those sneakers and runs with whatever signals you’ve given it, and good luck catching up.

[…]

I want a chisel, not a sledgehammer, with which to delete what I no longer need. I don’t want to have to empty my photo albums just because tech companies decided to make them “smart” and create an infinite loop of grief. That feels like a fast path to emotional bankruptcy, a way to “rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should,” as the writer André Aciman put it. “To feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste.” There it is: What a waste. Not wasted time, even if that is also true; that would be too cynical. A waste of potential joy.

This essay is a phenomenal exploration of coping with our decreased agency over our memory.

One of the Google engineers that Goode interviewed for this story explained that they implemented their Memories feature because, in part, many pictures were not viewed after they were taken. It seems that few people considered that, sometimes, we do not want to see those photos again — or, if we do, that we would like to do so on our own terms.

Yahoo Answers Is Going Away on May 4

One of my college instructors pointed out that few products have been so aptly named by accident as Yahoo Answers. Now where will I go to find out if I am prengnan?

It is unclear how unceremoniously wiping history from the internet service-by-service plays into Verizon’s long-term goal of transforming Yahoo into a premium subscription brand. I guess if you are going to copy something from Google, might as well be how often products simply disappear with a few weeks’ notice. Makes people think you’re innovating.

Uber May Stop Letting Drivers See Destinations and Name Prices in California

Carolyn Said, San Francisco Chronicle:

Too many drivers cherry-pick lucrative rides and decline other requests, making the service unreliable, the San Francisco company said on Monday. Uber no longer has to worry about proving that drivers are independent contractors, because Prop 22 — the November ballot measure that Uber and fellow gig companies spent $220 million to pass — enshrines their non-employee status.

[…]

Uber argued in court last summer that drivers’ ability to see destinations and set prices meant they were truly independent. California and three city attorneys are suing Uber and rival Lyft over driver classification under AB5, in a case that continues, but now will only look at conduct before Prop 22 took effect.

But on the streets, the move backfired. A third of California drivers declined more than 80% of their ride requests, making the service unreliable, Uber said this week. About a fifth of potential passengers in California now end up not finding a ride, a sevenfold increase from previously. The pandemic further constrained the number of drivers, who must now grapple with the risk of the virus.

In order to maintain the façade that Uber has always been a disruptive tech company where people could take “gigs” as drivers, instead of an illegal taxi operation that exploits contractor classification, it rushed into place just enough features to qualify drivers as independent workers. What it learned from this experiment is that Uber’s model falls apart when drivers are actually independent.

The Data Broker Industry Is Spending Big Bucks on Lobbying Efforts

Alfred Ng and Maddy Varner, the Markup:

All in all, we found 25 companies whose combined spending on federal lobbying totaled $29 million in 2020. Many of the top spenders were not pure data brokers but companies that nonetheless have massive data operations. Oracle, which has spent the past decade acquiring companies that collect data, spent the most by far, with disclosure documents showing $9,570,000 spent on federal lobbying.

For comparison, of the Big Tech firms with heavy lobbying presences, Facebook spent $19,680,000, Amazon $18,725,000, and Google $8,850,000 in the same period, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, found that Big Tech spent $108 million collectively on lobbying in 2020.

Oracle has its own data collection arm but has also built its portfolio by buying up companies like DataRaker, Compendium, and Crosswise. The companies, which were acquired in 2012, 2013, and 2016, respectively, take data from a variety of sources. DataRaker gets data from millions of smart meters and sensors for utilities companies, while Compendium delivers targeted ads. Crosswise allows Oracle to track people across devices, claiming to process data from billions of devices every month.

The data broker industry is not new to frequent readers of this website, but it does not receive nearly as much public attention as Facebook and Google. That is probably because data brokers deliberately avoid a public presence, while Facebook and Google have many public-facing products.

Another feature of the data broker industry is its ubiquity. While it is extraordinarily difficult to opt out of Facebook and Google’s tracking mechanisms, it is effectively impossible to eliminate yourself from the data broker industry — especially in the United States. The Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada put together a great 2019 report on the data brokers in Canada:

The data brokerage industry occupies in a region of the economy that is opaque to consumers, its objects of commerce. It is difficult for consumers to appreciate the mechanisms by which data brokers collect, use and trade in consumers’ personal information, and so the usual mechanisms by which markets discipline businesses are not in place. The industry is complex, with multiple kinds of actors collecting, processing, and aggregating data to create and use consumer profiles. Reporting by [the Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic] and others on the activities of the industry are insufficient to overcome this difficulty.

This report recommended more investigation and oversight, but it has limited effect. At the very least, Canadians’ personal information has some national and “substantially similar” provincial protections through legislation; in the United States, a 2014 report found, this is not the case, so far more private data is collected, traded, combined, and sold.

SCOTUS Says That Google’s Implementation of Oracle’s Java APIs Is Protected by Fair Use

BBC News:

Justice Stephen Breyer, in his written opinion, said that “to allow enforcement of Oracle’s copyright here would risk harm to the public”.

So many programmers used and had deep knowledge of Oracle’s building blocks that such a move would turn computer code into “a lock limiting the future creativity of new programs”.

“Oracle alone would hold the key,” he warned.

[…]

Oracle made clear that it firmly disagreed with the court’s judgement, saying that it had increased Google’s power further and damaged other companies’ ability to compete.

“They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can,” said Dorian Daley, the company’s general counsel, in a statement.

The reason I am linking to the BBC’s reporting on this verdict is that, if you scroll to the bottom of its article, you’ll see previous coverage going back to 2010. For much of that battle, Oracle has tried to play the role of the little company burdened by Google’s thievery. In the last eleven years, though, Oracle has become six times as valuable and is now worth over $200 billion — it seems pretty clear that Oracle can also afford to litigate for a decade in the hopes that it can have a monopoly on Java’s APIs and set a worrisome precedent for all software.

Personal Data Leaked From Five Hundred Million Facebook Users

Catalin Cimpanu, the Record:

A threat actor has published the phone numbers and account details for an estimated 533 million Facebook users —about a fifth of the entire social network’s user pool— on a publicly accessible cybercrime forum.

According to samples reviewed by The Record today, the leaked data includes information that users posted on their profiles. Information leaked today includes Facebook ID numbers, profile names, email addresses, location information, gender details, job data, and anything else users might have entered in their profiles.

Furthermore, the database also contains phone numbers for all users, information that is not always public for most profiles. A cursory review from The Record found multiple phone numbers for users that had not made their number public on the site.

[…]

“This is old data that was previously reported on in 2019,” a Facebook spokesperson told The Record. “We found and fixed this issue in August 2019.”

Well that is a relief since everyone I know has gotten a new name, email address, and phone number since August 2019.

Snap Has Explored Tracking Groups of Users Without Consent

Patrick McGee and Hannah Murphy, Financial Times:

According to recent internal documents seen by the Financial Times, Snap wanted to gather data from companies that analyse whether people have responded to ad campaigns, including aggregated IP addresses, the labels that identify devices connected to the internet.

It hoped it could take that data and cross-reference it against the information it holds on its own users to identify and track them, in a technique known as “probabilistic matching”, according to several people familiar with its plans.

After being contacted by the FT about its plans, Snap acknowledged it had run a probabilistic matching programme for several months to test the impact of Apple’s new policies, but said it had always intended to discontinue the program after Apple introduces its changes, as such a system would not be compliant.

Expect to see a lot more of this sort of thing as marketing companies and data brokers you’ve never heard of try to find surreptitious ways of tracking users instead of just asking permission.