Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for May, 2021

Apple Hires Antonio García Martínez

Lara O’Reilly, Insider:

Apple recently hired Antonio García Martínez, a former Facebook ads-product manager and the author of “Chaos Monkeys,” to join its product-engineering team for ad platforms, another sign of the technology giant’s growing ambitions in the advertising space.

García Martínez joined Apple in April and will work out of Cupertino, California, according to his LinkedIn profile. Apple’s ad-platforms team works on the technology that powers ads within the App Store and the Apple News and Stocks apps.

How did this happen? García Martínez is a walking pile of red flags. Longtime readers of this website may remember that name from the handful of times I have pointed to his narcissistic and obtuse commentary, but that is barely scratching the surface. He previously worked at Facebook; before that, he worked for Goldman Sachs. Those are the corporate ethics he is bringing to Apple’s advertising team.

When he left Facebook, he wrote a book. Sophie Kleeman mined it for quotes for Gizmodo, adding this disclaimer:

Before we launch into it, however, an important note: Martinez delights in describing the bad behavior and questionable conduct of places like Facebook, but he’s guilty of exactly the same kind of dickishness. His treatment of women is particularly awful — he describes women in the Bay Area as “soft and weak” with “self-regarding entitlement feminism” — and the book is peppered with casual homophobia and misogyny. (A nice example from page 33: “Whether it be a Breathalyzer or a banana, you can’t make eye contact with a man while going down on something. It’s too weird.”) It’s also worth pointing out that the book isn’t solely devoted to Martinez’s time at Facebook — a good chunk deals with his tenure at other assorted Silicon Valley entities.

Kleeman was not exaggerating; the book is packed full of sexist remarks and an often one-dimensional view of women. In an interview with Kara Swisher of Recode, García Martínez demanded those remarks be put into a fuller context — and it is even worse:

García Martínez So this is about the woman that had my children, and I’m, you know, I’m sort of praising her.

Swisher The British woman.

García Martínez The British trader.

Swisher Right.

García Martínez “She had wild green eyes with natural red spots in her irises when you pulled close, reminiscent of that Afghan girl from the National Geographic cover. Her personality was flinty and rough and as leathery as her skin. She had spent years between various jobs, backpacking around the rougher parts of the world. She was an imposing broad-shouldered presence. Six feet tall on bare feet and towering over me in heels. Most women in the Bay Area are soft and weak, cosseted and naive despite their claims of worldliness, and generally full of shit. They have their self-regarding entitlement feminism and ceaselessly want their independence, but the reality is come the epidemic plague or foreign invasion, they become precisely the sort of useless baggage you trade for a box of shotgun shells or a jerrycan of diesel.” And this is the important thing to put into context! I am contrasting this broad overgeneralization to the reality of the woman that I was falling in love with, okay?

He did not leave that misogyny in Silicon Valley. A year after his book was published, he got into a heated argument with Heidi N. Moore and sent her a cruel email after she blocked him on Twitter.

This was around the time he went full survivalist off the coast of Seattle, saying that “in the post-America, the 5.56 millimetre round will be the currency of the new America”. He has also made comments dismissive of privacy.

I am sure García Martínez is not the only person at Apple who has beliefs like these, but it is hard to reconcile such a high-profile hire with the company’s values. I wonder how employees there are feeling about working alongside or for someone who has so explicitly admitted that in a pandemic — like the one we are currently in — he thinks of them as “useless baggage” that he would trade for ammunition. Also, I wonder how Apple could consider him a good fit for a company that really does promote social justice and equity.

Employees have begun circulating a petition about his hiring. García Martínez did not reply to my request for a comment.

Update: Mark Gurman on Twitter:

Antonio García Martínez, a newly hired engineer on Apple’s ads team, is gone from Apple after employee backlash regarding sexist comments he made in his book Chaos Monkeys, company says. Employees have been incredibly angry about his hire and questioned Apple’s hiring practices.

Gurman also posted a tweet-length statement from Apple. This response still leaves unanswered questions about why he was hired in the first place.

Karl Bode:

[A]nyway, I look forward to the next few days being filled with people conflating accountability for being an ass with unwarranted “cancellation”

I am exhausted just thinking about it. If you write a book full of sexist comments, you do not get to be surprised when there are consequences.

Apple Says That It Terminated Nearly Half a Million Developer Accounts Last Year

There are a lot of big numbers in this statement from Apple regarding its efforts to combat App Store fraud, but these two paragraphs stood out to me:

Unfortunately, sometimes developer accounts are created entirely for fraudulent purposes. If a developer violation is egregious or repeated, the offender is expelled from the Apple Developer Program and their account terminated. Apple terminated 470,000 developer accounts in 2020 and rejected an additional 205,000 developer enrolments over fraud concerns, preventing these bad actors from ever submitting an app to the store.

[…]

And in just the last month, Apple blocked more than 3.2 million instances of apps distributed illicitly through the Apple Developer Enterprise Program. The program is designed to allow companies and other large organizations to develop and privately distribute internal-use apps to their employees that aren’t available to the general public. Fraudsters attempt to distribute apps via this method to circumvent the rigorous App Review process, or to implicate a legitimate enterprise by manipulating an insider to leak credentials needed to ship illicit content.

Both of these are huge figures to me — perhaps even more stunning than the $1.5 billion in fraudulent transactions Apple says that it stopped last year. They give a sense of just how many developer accounts are created specifically to circumvent the App Store rules, to enable fraud, or to misbehave in other ways. The half-a-million developer accounts terminated in 2020 compares to only about 180,000 new developers Apple says that it worked with to get their apps into the App Store.

But all of these numbers are necessarily going to be large. Apple is a big company, there are many users of its products, and it has a large developer community. Unfortunately, none of the numbers in this press release have any attached context. For example, Apple says that it rejected over 215,000 apps in 2020 for not meeting its privacy standards. But to understand what that means in terms of the total number of submissions, you have to go find the documents that surfaced in the company’s lawsuit with Epic Games, where you will find an average of about five million apps submitted annually, around 35% of which are rejected for any reason. But we still don’t know anything about the kinds of apps that were rejected. How many of the 215,000 apps were ever admitted into the store? And were any of them downloaded by users before being pulled? The answers to these kinds of questions are not in this press release.

Also, this felt pointed:

Even with these stringent review safeguards in place, with 1.8 million apps on the App Store, problems still surface. Users can report problematic apps by choosing the Report a Problem feature on the App Store or calling Apple Support, and developers can use either of those methods or additional channels like Feedback Assistant and Apple Developer Support.

These are the only options available to report a fraudulent app? These? I have already covered how Report a Problem is insufficient for raising alarms about a rule-breaking app, particularly if it is free. And the only other thing I can do, as a customer, is to telephone Apple Support? Ridiculous.

If you pay Apple’s developer program fee, you get two more ways of reporting scams. One is Feedback Assistant, which does not have a specific way of reporting fraud or abuse in another developer’s app. But it seems there is actually one way to raise that issue — in Developer Support, click on Report a Concern, then choose “report a fraud concern”. It’s right there, clear as day.

It’s not as clear nor as accessible as a button in the App Store but, you know, it’s something.

App Tracking Transparency Advantages Apple’s Ad Network

Eric Seufert:

Apple uses data about in-app purchases that users have made and apps that they have downloaded to personalize ads. This data was previously available to other advertising platforms through the event streams they ingested from apps and websites via SDKs and pixels, but ATT will sever that access. Apple is using the particular definition of “tracking” — and a very generous definition of all transactions facilitated through the App Store as being first-party data — to capture advertising market share.

[…]

As I outline in my Content Fortresses thesis, when only first-party data is permissible for use in advertising targeting, then the largest consumer tech companies will simply grow their first-party datasets. Apple is claiming that the entirety of the App Store exists in its first-party data environment and so every interaction that takes place in any app is fodder for its ads optimization algorithm.

From a consumer’s perspective, there is some logic to the argument Apple is making and which is echoed by the W3C. Using only first-party data to target advertising fits with the existing business relationship a user has with a company. If I have tracking enabled, I fully expect Apple to use my App Store purchase history to show me ads for other apps. If I use one of Facebook’s apps, I will not be surprised if it uses the accounts I follow and things I search to inform the advertising it shows me. But if I launch some other third-party app, I only know that some undisclosed SDK will inform the ads Facebook and Google show me elsewhere because I am in this industry and I write this website. It’s the same thing for ad tracking across the web.

But if platform owners get to claim that the activity that occurs in their own apps and third-party apps that are required to use a specific payment mechanism, that gives them a diabolical first-party advantage. No matter whether this is legal, it sure looks bad for Apple to quickly seize upon its platform owner position with new ad slots. Perhaps my interpretation of this is coloured by how much I think advertising has generally crapped up the App Store, but this seems like a brazen taunt directed at the many antitrust investigations Apple is currently facing.

Seufert:

And Facebook is left with little recourse. The company attempted to sway consumer sentiment to its side through an enormously wide-reaching PR campaign, but its efforts there were hobbled by the narrow messaging that was available to it. Facebook couldn’t explain in detail why ATT will harm consumers because, in doing so, it would need to reveal just how it personalizes ads — through observing conversions on third-party websites and apps. So Facebook was restricted to a fairly weak PR strategy, which was to highlight that small businesses would be harmed by ATT. This is true, of course, but it doesn’t invigorate a deep well of compassion from consumers. Does anyone want to acknowledge that their local florist or butcher is personalizing ads to them? Meanwhile, Apple simply had to mention “privacy” whenever objections to ATT were raised and mainstream media outlets rushed to defend it.

The fact that companies — businesses small and large — use creepy ad targeting to more precisely find potential customers does not make it any less creepy or any more permissible. I continue to believe that this anti-privacy economy ought to be regulated to the teeth. Not only would it assert that privacy is a right we should all have no matter the medium, it would also mean companies like Apple would be unable to use privacy as a unique pretext for decisions like these.

Amazon, Apple, and Google Back Matter, a Universal Home Device Certification

Stephen Shankland, CNet:

Matter is a new name for a smart-home alliance previously called CHIP, short for Connected Home over Internet Protocol. Unveiled in 2019, it employs the internet’s core technology to smooth over the complexities of connecting smart-home devices. The technology allows users to control lighting, heating, home theaters, video doorbells, door locks and alarms through smart speakers.

Getting all of these devices to get along — especially with Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri and Google Assistant competing to be your preferred interface — can be difficult. Matter is designed to unify the network domain, ensuring devices will work with any of those three main voice control systems. It should work even if you use more than one control system.

I recently stumbled across Troy Hunt’s lengthy series on getting smart home devices to work, and this whole market seems catastrophic. Stories like Hunt’s and the many competing standards in this space have dissuaded me from considering any smart home devices. Maybe Matter will make a difference, but maybe there are some things that simply should not be computers.

Panic Discontinues Code Editor for iOS

Panic’s Michael Buckley:

Code Editor — originally called “Diet Coda” then later “Coda for iOS” — was our powerful and full-featured iOS editor for developers. Introduced in 2012, it was packed with innovation, like our “Super Loupe” designed to make iOS cursor placement more precise — even fun, and an “iPad Preview” that let you use your iPad as a dedicated website preview screen long before Sidecar. The goal was to make a great code editor for iOS that anyone could use on-the-go.

Unfortunately, like Transmit iOS and Status Board before it, we’re discontinuing Code Editor as it doesn’t generate enough revenue to cover its continued development.

But that’s not the only reason. Read on.

Panic says that technical limitations effectively prohibit it from bringing its new Nova IDE to iOS or iPadOS and, if it could find a way around those restrictions, it would be a crapshoot whether the app would make it past App Review.

Panic has tried to crack this nut multiple times without success, but it is hard to see how any developer can make iOS work for apps like these. We all know that Panic makes great software, it has enthusiastic users, and it has long been a high-profile independent developer. Even if iOS is out of the question, evidence is mounting that Apple is kneecapping iPadOS by continuing to treat it with the same kinds of developer and app distribution rules as a smartphone.

Marques Brownlee on Right to Repair

This video from Marques Brownlee is an excellent explanation of how putting computers in everything allows manufacturers to maintain a greater level of control over the after-sale use of their products.

It still bums me out how hard companies like Apple and John Deere are fighting Right to Repair legislation. It is no secret why that is the case. However, it is troubling to see so much effort and money spent on making it harder for users to lengthen their buying cycle. I see the combination of hard-to-get parts, difficult repairs, and purchasing only a license to use a product instead of outright buying it as a particularly toxic one over the long term.

Mapping the American Broadband Gap

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

The average US home-Internet bill increased 19 percent during the first three years of the Trump administration, disproving former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai’s claim that deregulation lowered prices, according to a new report by advocacy group Free Press. For tens of millions of families that aren’t wealthy, “these increases are felt deeply, forcing difficult decisions about which services to forgo so they can maintain critical Internet access services,” Free Press wrote.

This report squares with research published in November indicating that American internet speeds rose in 2020; it makes sense that working and learning from home pushed people to upgrade to faster and more expensive plans. But the deregulation push by the FCC under the last administration clearly did not bring prices down, nor did dropping net neutrality increase capital expenditures as Pai claimed it would:

Capital investment by Internet providers has dropped, “with substantial declines at large companies like AT&T (where 2020 investment was 52 percent below the 2016 total for the company on an inflation-adjusted basis) and Comcast (where 2020 cable segment investment was 22 percent below 2016’s level on an inflation-adjusted basis),” the report said.

A global catastrophe will obviously have unexpected effects. But capital expenditures also declined in 2018, and this report shows that broadband prices increased that year as well. Pai’s claims about the relationship between net neutrality and spending are as fictional as the millions of people who apparently supported his plan, as are his claims about the supposed advantages of deregulating a utility.

So what about speed? Well, the FCC is required to release a report about the state of broadband in the United States and nationwide speeds appears to be getting better every year. But this data does come with a significant caveat. Peggy Schaffer, Techdirt:

As a director of a state broadband program, one of my biggest challenges is data. I know lots of areas in my state have inadequate or no service. I get those emails every day. We have a public facing broadband map which is based on the data that the internet service providers (ISPs) provide to the FCC on what is known as the Form 477. The notorious problem with the 477 data is that gross inaccuracies are built into the reporting. ISPs report advertised speeds based on census blocks, where if one home in a census block is served, or could reasonably be served, the entire census block is considered served.

The FCC says that it no longer uses Form 477 to generate these maps. But it does still rely on self-reported data from ISPs, and they frequently intervene to try to make their speeds look better. The FCC is taking steps to correct this by launching its own speed testing app, which you can download now. Until the FCC gets its act together, there is another way of estimating broadband speeds across the U.S.

Russell Brandom and William Joel, the Verge:

Instead of the FCC’s data, we drew on an anonymized dataset collected by Microsoft through its cloud services network, published in increments by the company over the past 18 months. If the FCC monitors the connections that providers say they’re offering, this measures what they’re actually getting. You can roll over specific counties to see the exact percentage of households connected at broadband speed, and the data is publicly available on GitHub if you want to check our work or drill down further.

The disparity between FCC reports and the Microsoft data can be shocking. In Lincoln County, Washington, an area west of Spokane with a population just a hair over 10,000, the FCC lists 100 percent broadband availability. But according to Microsoft’s data, only 5 percent of households are actually connecting at broadband speeds.

Other areas stand out for the sheer scale of the problem. Nine counties in Nevada fall under the 10 percent threshold, covering more than 100,000 people and the bulk of the area of the state. Most of Alaska is a similar dead zone — understandably, given how rugged the state’s interior is — but similar gaps pop up in southwest New Mexico or central Texas.

This is some excellent reporting.

Microsoft’s data indicates that 93% of people in California’s Santa Clara county are using internet speeds of 25 Mbps or higher. That is among the highest density of broadband users in the country, which explains why so many software companies headquartered there see no problem with pestering us with weekly updates that total several hundreds megabytes or, often, many gigabytes.

These reports indicate that American broadband — and, as previously noted, Canadian broadband as well — remains expensive and slow compared to other developed nations. Deregulation did not help; gutting net neutrality made things worse. And this pandemic is only making these gaps more noticeable and urgent.

Flurry Analytics: iOS Users Are Almost Entirely Opting Out of App Tracking

Catalin Cimpanu, the Record:

According to new data released by Flurry Analytics, a Verizon-owned ad analytics company, around an estimated 88% of iOS users worldwide have refused to allow apps to track them.

The number, which is even higher in the US, at around 96%, shows exactly why the feature was so widely criticized last year.

That link points to a story at the Verge about Facebook’s newspaper-based advertising campaign protesting this feature. So, sure, it was “widely criticized” by a company that is notoriously hostile to user privacy in the sense that its ads ran in popular newspapers. Among actual users, however, this feature is nothing but a hit. Given the choice, most people opt out, presumably because they think it is really creepy for the apps they use to surreptitiously fuel an unregulated economy of surveillance.

Flurry Analytics is updating its charts daily. The numbers now stand at 87% of worldwide users opting out of tracking and 95% in the U.S.

Two Cryptocurrency Links

Even though cryptocurrencies have had a big few years, I don’t really cover them here. That is mostly deliberate; I understand only enough about cryptocurrency to know that I do not understand cryptocurrency.

Happily, Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal was on Chris Hayes’ “Why Is This Happening?” podcast for an entertaining discussion about why cryptocurrencies exist and what problems they are trying to solve. I think it is a great listen, especially if you — like me — are the kind of person who kind of gets Bitcoin and also does not get it at all.

The minor reason I do not write about cryptocurrency is that it I find it very silly, as encapsulated by Matt Levine in yesterday’s issue of his Money Stuff newsletter:

Just imagine traveling 10 years back in time and trying to explain this to someone; just imagine what an idiot you’d feel like. “There’s going to be this online currency that people think is a form of digital gold, and then there’s going to be a different online currency that is a parody of the first one based on a meme about a talking Shiba Inu, and that one will have a market capitalization bigger than 80% of the companies in the S&P 500, and its value will fluctuate based on things like who is hosting ‘Saturday Night Live’ and whether people tweet a hashtag about it on the pot-joke holiday, and Bloomberg will write articles and banks will write research notes about those sorts of catalysts, and it will remain a perfectly ridiculous content-free parody even as people properly take it completely seriously because there are billions of dollars at stake.”

If I tried to explain this to my decade-ago self, I think it would break my brain only a little more than reading it now.

Actually, if I could go back in time, I’d tell myself to mine a bunch of that “Bitcoin” stuff I had been reading about, not to worry about understanding it, and not sell it for another ten years because there’s going to be a pandemic and that will make most of the Canadian housing market unattainable for normal human beings.

All Developers Are Equal, but Some Developers Are More Equal Than Others

During a congressional hearing last summer, Tim Cook famously testified that “we treat every developer the same”. This six-word quote has been repeated and shared widely. But in the full exchange, he added a specific qualifier:

Rep. Hank Johnson The App Store is said to also discriminate between app developers with similar apps on the Apple platform, and also as to small app developers versus large app developers. So, Mr. Cook, does Apple not treat all app developers equally?

Tim Cook Sir, we treat every developer the same. We have open and transparent rules — it’s a rigorous process. Because we care so deeply about privacy and security and quality, we do look at every app before it goes on [the store]. But those […] rules apply evenly to everyone […]

The distinction between treating developers equally and applying the same written rules to all developers was again blurred yesterday, during questioning of App Store vice president Matt Fischer, as reported by the Verge’s Adi Robertson on Twitter:

Are the rules for developers different for different developers? “The App Store review guidelines apply equally to all developers,” Fischer says. Nobody gets a special “dispensation” or “special” deal.

“Do whitelisted developers get to do what other developers don’t get to do?” No, says Fischer.

Fischer says from time to time, it wants to test a feature with a small group before rolling it out to all developers.

Alright, let’s look at the things offered to some of those “whitelisted” developers that other developers can expect to see real soon.

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

In 2018, a tweet from developer David Barnard commented about App Store subscriptions being automatically cancelled through the StoreKit API, questioning why there hadn’t been more offers to swap billing away from the App Store .

Matt Fischer asked Cindy Lin about it, and she explained that Hulu is a developer with special access to a subscription cancel/refund API.

Hulu is part of the set of whitelisted developers with access to subscription cancel/refund API. Back in 2015 they were using this to support instant upgrade using a 2 family setup, before we had subscription upgrade/downgrade capabilities built in.

Apple does not further detail who other developers with special access might have been in the correspondence, but these are not features that all developers have access to.

These emails are three years old but surely, any day now, developers will be able to manage subscriptions on behalf of customers instead of telling them to figure out Apple’s subscription mechanisms on their own.

Chance Miller, 9to5Mac:

New internal emails and presentation documents revealed as part of the Epic vs. Apple show how Apple attempted to convince Netflix to continue using the App Store In-App Payments system. As Netflix was plotting its roadmap, Apple made a multitude of last-ditch efforts to win the company over.

[…]

After Netflix had started rolling out its test of removing IAP support, Apple crafted a detailed slide show presentation for the company in an apparent attempt to convince the company to keep supporting the payment method. The presentation was sent by Chapman in July of 2018 — five months before Netflix would ultimately drop IAP support.

At the time this presentation was made, Apple says that it was already featuring Netflix more often in its App Store “Today” stories than anyone else. Apparently, those stories reached an average of about half a million people each and produced a 2% conversion rate. It was also featuring Netflix in many of its direct marketing campaigns. Apple proposed further increasing its specific promotion of Netflix in more channels, including “dedicated emails promoting only the Netflix app”, in-store marketing, and paying for dedicated advertising. It is an astonishing level of commitment to one specific developer.

I imagine all developers will be relieved at the level of support they will receive when they consider removing in-app purchases from their apps.

Also of note, this presentation reveals that Netflix had access to the same subscription management APIs as Hulu and other “original [Apple TV] partners”. That suggests these APIs could date back as far as September 2010. Apple has simply been testing these APIs among a small group of developers for perhaps the last eleven years as it readies a wider rollout; there is no other way to interpret this situation.

Jeremy Provost (via Michael Tsai):

A few months back I was surprised to see that Zoom had somehow been able to tap into using the camera during iPad Split View multitasking. This is an obvious feature for a videoconferencing app so that you can keep one eye on your meeting while you consult notes, look at a presentation, or slack off on Twitter.

I scoured the web and found no reference to how to enable this feature for our own iOS Zoom client, Participant for Zoom. We asked Zoom and to our surprise they gave us the answer, and in the process revealed an apparently private process, available only to those deemed worthy by Apple.

Not only is this entitlement undocumented and — aside from references in Provost’s post and a handful of related links — unmentioned anywhere, Apple provides no official channel for requesting use of this entitlement. I am sure it will eventually get around to it.

These developers are not unique among big developers; there are plenty of other cases where popular apps get access to entitlements unavailable to anyone else. I am not surprised that Apple treats some developers differently than others. I do not think it is inherently wrong for Apple to try to win Netflix’s in-app purchase business with some promotional tie-ins, nor do I think it is unreasonable to briefly test features with trusted partners before rolling them out more widely. Apple grants advance access to hardware to specific developers to promote new capabilities during keynotes, so it makes sense to do that for software sometimes, too.

But if that is the case, Apple should just come out and say so. That Cook statement from last summer keeps getting brought up because it is so easily proved wrong. Apple does not treat all developers the same. Even if you carefully parse the statements from both Cook and Fischer and concede that all developers follow the same App Store Guidelines, Apple does not respond equally to rule violations.

Thinking Through Flaws Borne of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act

Gilad Edelman, in a paywalled cover story for Wired that I am sure enterprising individuals could find in full elsewhere:

Neither [Trump nor Biden’s] beef with the law is terribly coherent. Section 230 shields platforms from legal liability, but there isn’t anything unlawful in the first place about a sharp-elbowed attack ad that bends the truth. Ditto for Trump’s complaints: Even if social media platforms did discriminate against conservative viewpoints, it’s perfectly legal to have a partisan bias, as every waking second of American life makes clear. More generally, politicians and pundits often seem to blame Section 230 for whatever they happen to dislike about the internet, whether or not it really applies — or they lash out at the law simply because they know it’s precious to companies they loathe.

So, yes, a lot of people who complain about Section 230 don’t know what they’re talking about. And yet the story told by the pro-230 camp contains its share of mythology as well. Section 230 is not the bogeyman of Trump’s stump speeches, but neither is it the pixie dust making the internet a magical place for free speech and innovation. To understand the law, you have to know not just what it says but how it came to be and how it has been interpreted — and sometimes misinterpreted — by judges during its 25-year existence. Once you do that, the picture that emerges is very different from the one painted by either side of the kill-it-or-keep-it debate.

In fact, Section 230 may be more like Dumbo’s supposedly magic feather: a talisman the internet has been clutching for dear life for 25 years, terrified of finding out whether online discourse could fly without it.

I thought this was a well-written essay that raised some of the consequences that have resulted from judicial precedence in the interpretation of Section 230, and how that relates to the history of media law. It is imperfect, however; a good rebuttal comes from Mike Masnick of Techdirt, and reading both of those pieces is worthwhile. In particular, framing the debates over Section 230 as “kill it or keep it” obviously misses a lot of nuance.

Over One Hundred Thousand Albertans Aged Thirty and Older Book Vaccines in First Five Hours of Eligibility

Alex Antoneshyn, CTV News:

Albertans born in 1991 or earlier were able to book a COVID-19 vaccine appointment starting Thursday.

[…]

In less than five hours, 100,000 appointments had been made, AHS spokesperson Kerry Williamson said.

We are in the midst of two thousand daily positive cases reported every day in Alberta, and some of the strictest measures taken since last spring to try to course correct. This is such welcome news.

I refreshed a couple of seconds after the queue opened up and there were already two thousand people ahead of me in line. I opened a tab on another computer — I know how these things work — and not twenty seconds later there were another thousand people in front. Still, I was able to book an appointment for early next week within a couple of minutes of exiting the queue. An absolutely painless and well-run experience. I am looking forward to a more relaxed summer.

After Twitter’s Acquisition of Scroll, Nuzzel Will Be Shutting Down

Scroll owns Nuzzel; Twitter is buying Scroll. Scroll’s CEO, Tony Haile, wrote about what that means for Nuzzel. Got all that? Cool:

We acquired Nuzzel in late 2018 when we realized that if we didn’t, Nuzzel would shut down. We believed that Jonathan Abrams and team had created something special: a way to make sure you never missed the important story or lost the context of a moment, delivered in a way that emphasized time well spent. We didn’t want to see that go away because it was ahead of its time.

[…]

When Twitter approached us about bringing Scroll into their broader subscription plans, all sides were excited about what we could do with Nuzzel and spent weeks trying to find a way to bring it with us. In the end, we found that the only way for Nuzzel to meet the scalability requirements necessary for a company like Twitter was to rebuild the service from scratch.

Nuzzel is the quintessential expression of what Twitter hopes developers will do with its public APIs. So much time and effort has gone into making it difficult to build superior third-party Twitter clients, with the promise that what Twitter wants are apps like these. Nuzzel surfaced popular links shared by the people you follow and their friends — and that’s mostly it. How great is that? Instead of relying on Twitter’s black box algorithm for surfacing interesting tweets, it is purely based on what is popular; trending links without the trending topic baggage.

But, much like Favstar and Stellar before it, and Favrd before that, Nuzzel seems to have been too good and too simple to last as an independent product. What a pisser.

Apple Expands Its Ad Business With a New App Store Ad Slot

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

At the same time as it’s cracking down on the advertising businesses run by rivals, Apple is introducing a new way for developers to advertise on the App Store. Previously, developers could promote their apps after users initiated a search on the App Store by targeting specific keywords. For example, if you typed in “taxi,” you might then see an ad by Uber in the top slot above the search results. The new ad slot, however, will reach users before they search. This can expose the app to a wider audience.

At first glance, it looks a little hinky for Apple to expand its advertising options just a couple of weeks after companies like Facebook spent months equating the introduction of App Tracking Transparency with harming ad-supported businesses overall. But I think this is a good example of how advertising can work in a privacy-friendly way. Check out the targeting options available to developers for these campaigns. The only available targeting that resembles tracking is displaying an ad based on whether someone has already downloaded the app, and it respects the universal tracking opt-out.

My main objection to these ads is that they are gumming up the App Store. Internal Apple emails show a strategy of making the App Store feel like Nordstrom, but the mix of crappy apps and frequent advertising are more like a yard sale. However, in those internal emails, a couple of employees pointed out that shady developers were already paying marketing companies to juice their apps’ positions in the store, so why not make it official? I see where that argument comes from; I wish the App Store was better than any of this.

The California Exception

You know how I linked to that New York Times editorial pleading for regulation of dark patterns? Turns out I missed something in the Timesconvoluted cancellation policies. They give you the choice of speaking with someone over the telephone or speaking with someone using an instant messenger. Both have similar hours of operation, but the latter has a curious carve-out:

Click the “Chat” button to the right or bottom of this page to chat with a Care Advocate. Chat is accessible between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. E.T. on Monday – Friday, and 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. E.T. on weekends and holidays (or 24 hours a day 7 days a week for subscribers in California).

It turns out you have the luxurious option of cancelling at your own discretion in California because there is a law that mandates more flexible unsubscribe options than the Times’ dark patterns permit.

Shan Wang, writing for Nieman Lab in 2018 (via Mustapha Hamoui):

But a California law that went into effect July 1 aims to stop companies from blockading customers looking to cancel their services — along with the practice of sneakily sliding them into another month’s subscription without much clarity on the real, full cost of the service. Among the changes: It bans companies from forcing you to, say, call a hard-to-find telephone number to cancel a subscription that you purchased online.

Once again, I point to Greg Bensinger’s final paragraph in that Times editorial:

Companies can’t be expected to reform themselves; they use dark patterns because they work. And while no laws will be able to anticipate or prevent every type of dark pattern, lawmakers can begin to chip away at the imbalance between consumers and corporations by cracking down on these clearly deceptive practices.

The Times could certainly apply its comparatively generous cancellation policies for Californian users to all subscribers who wish to cancel. There is nothing stopping it from doing so, but it will clearly delay doing so until mandated by national lawmakers.

Facebook and the Weather Network Are Sending Users on an All-Expenses Paid Guilt Trip

Kim Lyons, the Verge:

Facebook is continuing its campaign against Apple’s iOS 14 privacy updates, adding a notice within its iOS app telling users the information it collects from other apps and websites can “help keep Facebook free of charge.” A similar message was seen on Instagram’s iOS app (Facebook is Instagram’s parent company).

You think Facebook’s threat of having to pay to use its services is bad? Wait until you see what Canada’s own Weather Network has cooked up.

Ashkan Soltani:

Well that escalated quickly ;)

“The @weathernetwork helps SAVE LIVES! Allow us to track your activity across apps?”

(Subtext: people will *die* if you block tracking in @Apple iOS14…)

Weather apps are among the greatest abusers of users’ privacy. That is not true for all weather apps — Hello Weather, Carrot, and many others have reassuring privacy policies — but the ones from big companies like the Weather Network, the Weather Channel, and AccuWeather share user data widely. I am disappointed Apple allowed such a disingenuous description in the Weather Network’s permissions request prompt.

A New York Times Editorial Board Member Calls for Regulation of Dark Patterns

New York Times editorial board member Greg Bensinger:

Consider Amazon. The company perfected the one-click checkout. But canceling a $119 Prime subscription is a labyrinthine process that requires multiple screens and clicks.

Or Ticketmaster. Online customers are bombarded with options for ticket insurance, subscription services for razors and other items and, when users navigate through those, they can expect to receive a battery of text messages from the company with no clear option to stop them.

These are examples of “dark patterns,” the techniques that companies use online to get consumers to sign up for things, keep subscriptions they might otherwise cancel or turn over more personal data. They come in countless variations: giant blinking sign-up buttons, hidden unsubscribe links, red X’s that actually open new pages, countdown timers and pre-checked options for marketing spam. Think of them as the digital equivalent of trying to cancel a gym membership.

Design patterns like these sure are unethical, often forcing people to spend a great amount of time to understand byzantine systems of purchasing options and unsubscribe methods.

By the way, how does someone cancel, say, a New York Times subscription?

Speak with a Customer Care Advocate

Call us at 866-273-3612 if you are in the U.S. Our hours are 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. E.T. Monday to Friday, and 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. E.T. on weekends and holidays.

[…]

Chat with a Customer Care Advocate

The Times calls these two choices — speaking or chatting — “several ways to unsubscribe”, but they both rely on someone else cancelling your subscription. A subscriber has no way of doing so themselves. This arduous process is so well-known that it is in the new Dark Patterns Hall of Shame. But, though Bensinger writes extensively about dark patterns and even links to that Hall of Shame, he does not once acknowledge the Times’ subscription cancellation policies, which makes his concluding paragraph especially rich:

Companies can’t be expected to reform themselves; they use dark patterns because they work. And while no laws will be able to anticipate or prevent every type of dark pattern, lawmakers can begin to chip away at the imbalance between consumers and corporations by cracking down on these clearly deceptive practices.

Clearly.

Big Tech’s Surging Growth

Shira Ovide, New York Times:

The U.S. economy is cranking back from 2020, when it contracted for the first time since the financial crisis. But for the tech giants, the pandemic hit was barely a blip. It’s a fantastic time to be a titan of U.S. technology — as long as you ignore the screaming politicians, the daily headlines about killing free speech or dodging taxes, the gripes from competitors and workers, and the too-many-to-count legal investigations and lawsuits.

America’s technology superpowers aren’t making bonkers dollars in spite of the deadly coronavirus and its ripple effects through the global economy. They have grown even stronger because of the pandemic. It’s both logical and slightly nuts.

Richard Waters, Financial Times:

Big Tech’s increasingly outsized impact on the world of business can best be summed up by just two numbers.

One is the combined revenue of Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, which jumped 41 per cent in the first three months of this year, to $322bn. That points to a rapid acceleration in growth that the leading tech companies have not seen in years, even as they have become some of the world’s biggest companies.

The other is the companies’ profit growth, which has been even more spectacular. After-tax earnings for the five soared by 105 per cent from the previous year, to $75bn. Profit margins rose strongly across the sector, as the biggest companies benefited from the economics of scale while keeping a wary eye on cost expansion during the pandemic.

Waters has a set of charts showing the revenue change at each of those five companies. Aside from the wild growth at four of those companies, the most striking thing to me is the consistency of Microsoft’s revenue. It has grown somewhere between ten and twenty percent per quarter since some time in 2018 — including during the pandemic when every other large tech company was making bank. I assume that is because a bunch of people sold their old computers with Facebook ads, then bought shiny new iPads to use with their company’s existing Office 365 subscription.

By the way, if you think Apple’s margins are grotesque, hold your breath when you see Facebook’s and Microsoft’s. Sure paints a completely different picture of the economy than many people are experiencing.

Epic Games v. Apple Trial Opens With Random People Incoherently Screaming

Matthew Gault, Vice:

Thanks to COVID-19 and general interest in the case, the District Court in California set up a public phone line where the public could call in and listen in to the proceedings.

As first spotted by QZ tech reporter Nicolás Rivero, the phone lines weren’t muted and gamers called in to talk about Fortnite and mention their favorite streamers.

This is more-or-less exactly how I expected this trial to begin.