Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for March, 2022

The U.K. Is Cracking Down on ‘Misleading’ Cryptocurrency Ads

Lindsey Choo, Protocol:

The U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority said Tuesday that it had issued notices to over 50 companies that advertise cryptocurrencies, asking them to review their ads to ensure compliance with existing rules.

The guidance outlined in the official Enforcement Notices requires that advertisers “clearly state that cryptocurrencies are unregulated in the U.K. and that the value of investments are variable and can go down,” and that they cannot “imply that investment decisions are trivial, simple, easy or suitable for anyone.”

Additionally, the ads cannot imply a sense of urgency to buy crypto, create a “fear of missing out” or suggest that crypto investments are “low risk,” which would seem to rule out most crypto ads.

Looks like Matt Damon is going to have to record some new ads.

I was watching the Bahrain Grand Prix — well, some highlight reels — and could not help but notice the number of drivers and cars covered in logos from cryptocurrency sponsors. Alpine is sponsored by Binance, Aston Martin has a partnership with Crypto.com, Ferrari has Velas, McLaren and Red Bull sport Tezos logos — Red Bull also has a deal with Bybit — and Mercedes-Benz has FTX. That is not to mention Crypto.com’s extraordinary partnership with the Formula 1 organization: its logos were all over turns five, six, and seven of the circuit, it is sponsoring an “overtake king award”, and it will be the title sponsor of the forthcoming Miami Grand Prix. The marketing budgets of these companies must be extraordinary.

Computational Photography’s Uncanny Valley

Kyle Chayka, the New Yorker:

In January, I traded my iPhone 7 for an iPhone 12 Pro, and I’ve been dismayed by the camera’s performance. On the 7, the slight roughness of the images I took seemed like a logical product of the camera’s limited capabilities. I didn’t mind imperfections like the “digital noise” that occurred when a subject was underlit or too far away, and I liked that any editing of photos was up to me. On the 12 Pro, by contrast, the digital manipulations are aggressive and unsolicited. One expects a person’s face in front of a sunlit window to appear darkened, for instance, since a traditional camera lens, like the human eye, can only let light in through a single aperture size in a given instant. But on my iPhone 12 Pro even a backlit face appears strangely illuminated. The editing might make for a theoretically improved photo—it’s nice to see faces — yet the effect is creepy. When I press the shutter button to take a picture, the image in the frame often appears for an instant as it did to my naked eye. Then it clarifies and brightens into something unrecognizable, and there’s no way of reversing the process. David Fitt, a professional photographer based in Paris, also went from an iPhone 7 to a 12 Pro, in 2020, and he still prefers the 7’s less powerful camera. On the 12 Pro, “I shoot it and it looks overprocessed,” he said. “They bring details back in the highlights and in the shadows that often are more than what you see in real life. It looks over-real.”

I find Chayka’s specific word choice — “digital manipulations [that] are […] unsolicited” — worth thinking about. It is the same sort of question raised by Lux’s look at the iPhone 13 camera system, which Chayka also links to. These are processing choices that go far beyond the decisions made by the developers of film stock or DSLR settings. An iPhone’s camera slices the image into its individual parts and tunes each one, resulting in images that span a quality gamut.

There are many things about the default camera app’s processing that are not to my tastes, but one attribute tops the list: its aggressive noise reduction. I wish it would back off and permit a little more grain, which gives images texture and compromises details less.

Right now, the iPhone’s image processing pipeline sometimes feels like it lacks confidence in the camera’s abilities. As anyone who shoots RAW on their iPhone’s camera can attest, it is a very capable lens and sensor. It can be allowed to breathe a little more.

This piece opens with the story of a mother of two who recently upgraded her iPhone — from an “iPhone 10”, per the New Yorker’s house style — and was unhappy with her 12 Pro’s photo capabilities. I found the closing part of that story funny:

[…] The new iPhone promises “next level” photography with push-button ease. But the results look odd and uncanny. “Make it less smart — I’m serious,” she said. Lately she’s taken to carrying a Pixel, from Google’s line of smartphones, for the sole purpose of taking pictures.

Google’s Pixel was the phone that really kicked off this computational photography stuff. It seems its interpretation of images is seen — by this owner anyway — as less intrusive. But I do not see the iPhone 12 Pro issues she raises in my own 12 Pro’s photos, such as desaturated warm tones.

Mercedes-Benz Takes Legal Responsibility for Its Automated Driving Systems

Mack Hogan, Road and Track:

Mercedes’ new Drive Pilot seems, in operation, like many “traffic jam assistant” technologies already on sale today. On certain highways, below 40 mph, a Drive Pilot-equipped S-Class or EQS will take control of the car’s speed, steering, and brakes to move you along in traffic. But there’s one key difference: Once you engage Drive Pilot, you are no longer legally liable for the car’s operation until it disengages. You can look away, watch a movie, or zone out. If the car crashes while Drive Pilot is operating, that’s Mercedes’ problem, not yours.

Good. It is wrong to blame users of these systems when manufacturers are so enthusiastic about their capabilities. Every vendor should be this keen to stand behind its products.

Apple TV App on Android TV and Google TV No Longer Lets Users Buy or Rent Movies

Rasmus Larsen of Flat Panels HD:

The Apple TV app arrived on Google TV in early 2021 and on Android TV in the summer of 2021, complete with Apple TV+ access, channels, and the ability to rent and purchase iTunes movies directly on the device.

The latest app update has removed the option to rent and purchase movies on Android TV and Google TV devices. The two buttons have been replaced by a new ‘How to Watch’ button which states: “You can buy, rent or subscribe in the Apple TV app on iPhone, iPad, and other streaming devices.”

John Gruber linked to Larsen’s post and confirmed it is a deliberate change for financial reasons:

I can confirm via, as they say, sources familiar with the matter, that this is entirely about Apple and Google not being able to reach mutually agreeable terms on in-app payment commissions. Until this update, Apple had been running on an exemption not to use Google’s IAP. The exemption expired, so Apple TV on Android TV is now “reader only”. Apple TV on Amazon’s Fire platform has long been “reader only” as well for the same reason: Apple would rather not sell or rent any content at all on these platforms than do so while paying Google/Amazon the commissions they demand.

This reminds me of Amazon’s deal with Apple, allowing it to sell some of its media through its own purchase flow in its Apple TV app, thus exempting it from Apple’s commission. These deals between giant companies are ever-changing, which creates an unpredictable and often worse experience for users, and are generally unavailable to smaller developers.

Vimeo Clarifies Its High-Bandwidth Policy

After several video makers expressed concern over Vimeo’s crackdown on high-bandwidth users, attempting to extract thousands of dollars annually from some with only a week’s notice, Vimeo CEO Anjali Sud today posted an update:

For those who consume large amounts of video bandwidth — repeatedly hitting the bandwidth threshold for Vimeo’s top 1% of users — we have continued to enforce legacy policies that are poorly communicated and that are causing unnecessary friction and anxiety. We have been too slow to act upon user feedback, and as a consequence, have damaged user trust. This pains me greatly, and does not do justice to the passion and hard work of our team. I’d like to offer an apology for this, and more importantly, a solution.

Vimeo says it will set a flat threshold of 2 TB when it will begin billing users based on actual bandwidth used at the higher rate instead of their typical monthly rate. It also says it will notify users when they are about to hit that amount, and that it will give thirty days’ notice rather than seven, which was plainly ridiculous. These are welcome improvements — predictability is good — but it is unclear if users will only be charged extra during months when they exceed 2 TB.

Update: My initial read on this was wrong — or, if I am being charitable to myself, unclear. Vimeo is not billing based on actual bandwidth, which I think would make a lot of sense. Instead, these are still the expensive annual plans that users must pay for in a lump sum — I do not understand why Vimeo does not want to bill these on a monthly basis like all the rest of its plans — but the floor is a firm 2 TB instead of the vague “top 1% of users” criteria it used previously. Not great. (Thanks to Andy Baio for the correction.)

Also, this is an interesting change:

We will be rolling out an exemption policy moving forward where creative professionals would not be restricted by the 2TB bandwidth threshold, as long as they aren’t using Vimeo to monetize those videos elsewhere. We will have more details that we’ll share within the next 30 days, and you’ll be able to find that information on our help center.

This will not affect those who use Vimeo through Patreon, since they are charging for video access, but it sounds like it will help those using Vimeo to host a portfolio, for example.

Analyst, Apparently Hearing of This ‘Apple’ Company for the First Time, Speculates It Could Sell Its Chips to Third Parties

Daniel Howley, reporting for Yahoo Finance:

“Apple is beating chip companies at their own game with the M1 series,” Wedbush analyst Dan Ives told Yahoo Finance.

[…]

According to Ives, however, Apple may eventually make the M1 Ultra available to other computer makers, giving consumers the ability to build their own M1 Ultra-based systems while putting Apple in direct competition with Intel, AMD, and Nvidia.

“This latest M1 Ultra is a game changer on the graphics front and ultimately is competitive versus Nvidia,” Ives said. “Now it’s about how big Apple goes outside Cupertino and selling its chip to third parties.”

I love this take so much. Like, it sounds kind of dumb, but is it? Apple has created this staggering line of chips that lowers its own costs while making its computers more compelling than they have been in years, and it is entirely proprietary. By Ives’ reckoning, why would Apple want to sell Macs for thousands of dollars apiece when it could sell its chips for hundreds while destroying its competitive advantage? You know, apart from the logic of everything about that.

Also, those claims about performance rivalling Nvidia’s RTX 3090? Apple’s Bezos charts showed less than the full picture.

Tile Adds a Way to Scan for Unwanted Trackers

Tile:

If you are concerned about unwanted tracking, Scan and Secure is a simple tool you can use to determine if there are unknown Tiles or Tile-enabled devices traveling with you. You don’t need to have a Tile account or be part of the Tile Network in order to use this feature. It’s accessible to everyone, whether you’re an iPhone or Android user. Simply download the Tile app (or if you have it already make sure you have the latest version) and you’ll be prompted within the app if you need to change and enable any permission settings for this feature to work.

It is good to see the attention given to Apple’s AirTags is encouraging better safety for other trackers.

But, first, why is this only now being introduced? The potential for these devices to be abused is not news; concerns about how they might assist stalkers are at least nine years old.

Second, this unwanted tracker finder still requires the Tile app, so this is not a particularly automatic means of detection. I still think these devices need a dedicated spec so all manufacturers can notify a system about unwanted tracking.

Apple Studio Display Reviews Are In

Joanna Stern, Wall Street Journal:

Yet Apple’s camera consistently produced grainy and washed-out images. There was so much missing detail in some of the shots that it reminded me of the camera on my old BlackBerry. On the plus side: No one could see my frizzy hair.

For confirmation, I again brought in extra eyes. I recorded footage from webcams on the Studio Display (12 megapixel), an iPhone 11 Pro (12 megapixel), a 14-inch MacBook Pro (2 megapixel) and the 5K LG monitor (2 megapixel). I shared frames with a group of colleagues, without saying which came from which. The group was unanimous, ranking the Apple Studio Display’s webcam dead last. Naturally, the iPhone came in first.

After contacting Apple about my results, another spokeswoman wrote, “We discovered an issue where the system isn’t behaving as expected. We’ll be making improvements in a future software update.” I plan to monitor the situation.

Stern was more critical of the Studio Display than most others were: while it is a fine 5K display, there seems to be exactly one panel at this size and resolution, and you have seen it before in the iMac and LG’s equivalent monitor. It is up to you to decide how one ought to feel about spending $1,600 on a display nearly identical to the one fitted to the iMac that started at $1,800 and came with an entire computer.1

But the above quote is not uniquely reflective of Stern’s criticisms; similar paragraphs are in every review I have read. It seems everyone with access to a Studio Display right now agrees the camera sucks. That is disappointing. I am surprised this product made it through testing and onto the desks of reviewers with what seems like an obvious and noteworthy fault.


  1. Between you and me, if I owned a supported laptop and wanted to go back to the single Mac lifestyle, I would probably buy one. It is just so nice, except for the camera right now. ↩︎

‘Link in Bio’ Is Apparently a Billion-Dollar Business

Alyssa Bereznak, writing for the Ringer in 2016:

The real reason the “link in bio” phenomenon has persisted is because Instagram is clingy. The company knows exactly the kind of endless scrolling its app encourages, and doesn’t want to interrupt its captive audience with pesky distractions that encourage people to venture outside its ecosystem. It doesn’t trust that we will come back.

But it should know, now that it has approximately 300 million daily users, that we almost certainly will. Even if Instagram is popular, it is limited by its platform’s abilities. It is not a blogging or commerce site, just a place where you can gaze at an alternate reality and aspire to it. As wonderful as it is to wade in a pool of glorious image soup, the network can’t keep kidding itself that it is a singular online destination. So, give us those caption links, Instagram. There’s enough room on the internet for everyone.

Anil Dash, writing in 2019:

There are some legitimate reasons platforms limit links. Spammers abuse links. Trust is hard to verify around links — too many scammers make links that look real, but lead to sketchy sites. Building a system to monitor all the links being posted on a big platform does take some cost. Maybe you can have a link again, if you are already in the 1% most influential users on the platform and put it in a story — the part of Instagram’s experience that drives the engagement metrics they care about. Maybe you just give up, and pay for links, by buying advertising.

But killing off links is a strategy. It may be presented as a cost-saving measure, or as a way of reducing the sharing of untrusted links. But it is a strategy, designed to keep people from the open web, the place where they can control how, and whether, someone makes money off of an audience. The web is where we can make sites that don’t abuse data in the ways that Facebook properties do.

Amanda Silberling, TechCrunch:

Over the last year and a half, Linktree raised a combined $55.7 million over two funding rounds. Today, the Australia-based company announced a $110 million all equity round led by Index Ventures and Coatue Management, with participation from AirTree Ventures, Insight Partners, and Greenoaks. This raise values Linktree at a whopping $1.3 billion. That’s a lot for what’s essentially a lightweight mini-website builder.

I am no venture capitalist, but that seems like a stunning amount of on-paper value to be hinging on a single product decision from Instagram. Notably, this valuation is higher than Instagram’s was when it was acquired by Facebook.

The 2022 iPad Air

Federico Viticci, MacStories:

Now that the iPad Air also has the M1, I’m here, once again, writing the same things over and over: everything is plenty fast on this iPad, but you can never shake the feeling that Apple imposed a virtual cap on the platform’s performance and flexibility and that, so far, the M1 has meant very little for the evolution of the iPadOS platform. At this point, I look at it this way: I can buy a $999 MacBook Air with the M1, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of storage and get access to features such as more advanced multitasking, background utilities, extended display mode, and all kinds of system-wide customizations; an iPad running the same configuration is still limited to two apps in Split View, Slide Over, and basic external display mirroring.

If you know my history, you know that I’m not implying iPads should run macOS. I never wanted that and never will. I’m saying that it’s disappointing the M1 is so vastly underutilized on iPads and that all iPadOS progress feels stuck to two years ago. The same chip has kickstarted a renaissance for macOS as a powerful, customizable, pro-user-friendly platform; on iPadOS, it’s just another chip that hasn’t unlocked any concrete new possibilities yet.

Nobody does iPad reviews like Viticci. Great footnotes, too.

I remain confused about the vision for the iPad. The move to dedicated “iPadOS” branding and sharing chips with the Mac suggests the higher end of the lineup will rival a MacBook Air’s existing capabilities, yet add a wildly better display and Apple Pencil support. What a combination that would be.

But here is the thing: my 2017 base model iPad benchmarks similarly to my 2012 MacBook Air. These are both old products, but it is downright embarrassing how much clunkier my iPad feels by comparison, and how much more fluid the multitasking experience is on my Mac. That is not solely the result of technical differences; there are software choices that present as much of a hurdle.

Many of us want the iPad to be as brilliant to use as it is on paper. We ride this rollercoaster every year where the hardware high is followed by a software struggle. Nobody said reinventing the personal computer experience would be easy or fast. But this flagship product line turns twelve years old next month, and it still feels like we are often picking at ground-level issues.

Update: One thing I think Viticci’s review does especially well is illustrate the difference between the iPad Air and 11-inch iPad Pro. They may contain the same SoC and similar-sized screens, but there are multitasking advantages to the iPad Pro.

My ‘Not a Shadowy Nonprofit Group’ T-Shirt Has People Asking Questions Already Answered by My Shirt

Several Amazon suppliers and marketplace sellers are allegedly using forced Uyghur labour, along with seven of Apple’s suppliers. Instagram is reportedly a platform for drug dealers selling to children. Facebook generates pages for white supremacist groups. Ads powered by Google appeared beside conspiracy theories about COVID-19.

You have probably seen some of these stories and others like them. Something they all have in common is their source: the Tech Transparency Project, or TTP. The TTP began life in April 2016 as the Google Transparency Project, with a goal of tracking Google’s close relationship with U.S. lawmakers. Using a mix of public records and FOIA requests, it established Google’s connections to media organizations, lobbyists, and academics. Its techniques have sometimes elicited controversy, like inaccuracies in its database of allegedly Google-funded researchers, but it has been rewarded with enthusiastic media coverage for every year it has operated.

In March 2020, the initiative was rebranded the Tech Transparency Project in an effort to investigate a broader set of major consumer technology companies. In addition to Google and sub-brands like YouTube, TTP has released several reports documenting the ills of Amazon, Apple, Meta, and the burgeoning cryptocurrency industry. As before, these publications typically involve a mix of open records, public document requests, and experiments. For example, its researchers were able to find drugs for sale through Instagram in just a couple of taps, even though Instagram shows no results for common drug search terms. Even though the TTP published its investigation in early December, it took little time for me to find apparent drug dealers now, months later, using the same method.

Exposing the drug marketplace hiding inside a photo platform or the use of forced labour by suppliers is a worthwhile effort. I applaud a more critical look at big businesses, especially those that are somehow trusted to police themselves, and there is no bigger industry today than tech. Besides, critically underfunded public institutions depend on third-party notifications like these to investigate malpractice.

Still, the volume of investigations produced by the TTP and the project’s focus got me wondering who was funding this operation. The answer to that question is less transparent than the initiative’s name would suggest.

The TTP’s “About” page lists several funders today: groups like the Bohemian Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Omidyar Network, and Open Society Foundations; and individuals including David Magerman, formerly of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies. The TTP says it “does not” receive donations from corporations.

But it seems this has not always been the case. In 2016, when it was still the Google Transparency Project, Jeff John Roberts of Fortune reported that Oracle was “one of many” donors.1 It is unclear when Oracle’s donations were received — I tried and failed to find out. But if Oracle was funding it from around its inception, that would be newsworthy — the project was launched just a couple of weeks before arguments began in Oracle’s second attempt at suing Google for intellectual property infringement. It would be nice for Oracle if Google — widely seen as a friendly and personable kind of corporate giant, especially in early 2016 — faced some negative publicity from an independent organization.

The press — tech and mainstream — does not cover Oracle with the fervour of Apple or Google or Meta, but it is a large company nevertheless. Its market capitalization hovers around the $200 billion mark. That is similar to Adobe and Salesforce, and greater valuation than all major American airlines combined plus Boeing. Also, Oracle CTO and executive chairman Larry Ellison is, as of writing, number eight on the Forbes live billionaire ranking, landing seven spots ahead of Mark Zuckerberg. What I am saying is that Oracle certainly qualifies as a big company, and its executives are rich.

In August 2016, Silicon Beat reported that the Google Transparency Project was also funded in large part by the New Venture Fund. One of its primary backers was — and remains — the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The article notes that it is very possible the Gates Foundation was unaware their money was going to help show Google’s influence in policymaking circles, given how buried the trail is between their donation and the final product. It seems unlikely to me that the Gates Foundation bankrolled the New Venture Fund specifically to endorse projects like those run by the CFA; that is too many steps removed.

A striking quality of the TTP is how it has narrowed its focus. Looking at the businesses the TTP does not cover seems as intriguing as those it does. For example, Oracle is not as big as the four companies the TTP targets for its investigations, but it is certainly influential among policymakers. According to expenditure data tracked by Open Secrets, Oracle spends more on lobbying than any other electronics company,2 and it has a PAC. Does it fund researchers? Should it be a part of the TTP’s searchable database “big tech” funding?

The TTP has not investigated Microsoft either, even though its market cap is higher than that of Amazon, Google, or Meta. Microsoft’s list of top suppliers for 2021 includes Avary Holding and Luxshare, both of which have been tied to forced labour in Xinjiang. The latter was connected by TTP to Amazon and Apple without recognizing Microsoft’s use of the same supplier.

It is unfair to assume bad faith motivations for these omissions. The TTP likely wants to focus on what it sees as the biggest offenders, and it may not have the capacity to cover every large tech company in detail. I would buy that rationale. It is not like it is looking into every company except Oracle and Microsoft — it also has not published research on Tencent, TikTok, or Twitter, even though all three of those companies are influential today.

But the selection of its ire still seems inconsistent, at the very least. It explores malfeasance by the biggest tech companies in the world, except Microsoft, the second most valuable tech company. It is worried about lobbying, except when it comes to boring companies or adjacent industries like telecom. It says it does not accept corporate donations, but it has not acknowledged receiving funding from Oracle in the past.

One way to know for certain the TTP is not playing favours behind the scenes is if it released its finances in more detail. There is nothing prohibiting it from doing so. But it is hard to trace any source of its funding outside of the handful of funders on its “About” page. One reason is because it is not an independent organization — it is an initiative of the Campaign for Accountability, a “nonpartisan, nonprofit watchdog organization”, according to the “Mission” page on its website. In addition to running the TTP, the Campaign for Accountability, or CFA, advocates for investigations into ethical violations by U.S. state and federal lawmakers, most often Republican officials. It is not a politically neutral organization, but it does not pretend to be, and its lean is not relevant to the purposes of this article. The CFA was founded about a year before it launched the Google Transparency Project.

The CFA’s “Mission” page also says “millions of Americans’ lives are negatively impacted by […] shadowy nonprofit groups”. Not a single funder or donor is listed on the CFA’s website.

That made me curious. There is no reason for me to assume ill intent, but it is odd to see an initiative advocating for transparency by tech companies without being similarly transparent, run by an organization decrying “shadowy nonprofit groups” that refuses to disclose its biggest donors. Non-profits are not obligated to publicize sources of significant funding, but the CFA could do so if it wanted to. I thought its 2020 fiscal year would be a good place to start because that is when the CFA launched its Tech Transparency Project expansion.

That year is also significant because the CFA doubled its donor revenue. In 2019, it received $1,227,610, but it jumped to $2,500,278 in 2020. Surely one reason for the significant increase in fundraising is because 2020 was an election year. The CFA is much more than the TTP. It advocates for progressive causes, including voting rights, so an election year against that fucking guy would likely encourage more people and organizations who share similar values to donate. Keep in mind that the funds here have been used on many of the organization’s projects, and some donations may have nothing to do with the TTP.

The sole donation acknowledged by the CFA on its tax return is $62,500 worth of office space from the Open Markets Institute, but no donors are listed for the remaining $2,545,348 million it collected that year. In a filing in Hawaii (PDF), it says about 75% of its funding in 2020 came from “five donors that each account[ed] for at least 10% of the annual revenue” — the CFA brought in a little over $2.6 million in total revenue, meaning these donors contributed at least $260,000 apiece.

I thought I would try to figure out who those five major donors were. Here is where things get a bit frustrating. In the U.S., a tax-exempt charitable organization has to disclose when it grants money to someone else, so even though the CFA does not publicize its incoming sources of funding, anyone can find organizations that gave it money. However, corporations and individuals generally do not need to disclose their charitable contributions. I am therefore limited to reviewing contributions by funds and charities.

The first was easy enough to find: $400,000 came from the New Venture Fund. The TTP acknowledged the support on a contemporaneous version of its “About” page, and the fund disclosed it on its 990 form (PDF).

Another $399,312 was donated in 2020 by the Susan Thomas Buffett Foundation, one of Warren Buffett’s philanthropic vehicles. Those appear to be two of the five significant donors CFA was dependent on in 2020; their combined contributions reflect about 30% of CFA’s revenue for the year.

To satisfy the disclosure in the filing from Hawaii, I still needed to find over a million dollars’ worth of donations from three donors. This is where I began to struggle. One of the organizations that got credited on the “About” page in 2020 is the Open Society Foundations, but its $100,000 donation that year does not meet the 10% revenue cutoff.

Another regular donor revealed in my search of ProPublica’s Nonprofit Explorer is the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees. A 2020 copy of its 990-PF is not yet available, but previous donations indicate it would likely not meet the criteria: it reported giving $90,000 in 2017, $50,000 in 2018, and $75,000 in 2019.

One possibility might be Fidelity Investments Charitable Gift Fund which, in fiscal year 2020, donated $400,300 to the CFA. But its 2020 fiscal year ended June 2020, so I am not sure whether the CFA booked this amount in 2020 or 2019, and it did not file its 990 until the end of May 2021, so it seems we could be waiting a few months to know if it continued that funding.

Luckily, the CFA’s 2019 financials are simpler. It reported receiving $1,227,610 grants and donations that year, of which:

  • $614,154 came from the Susan Thomas Buffett Foundation

  • $510,000 came from the New Venture Fund

  • and $75,000 came from American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees.

That is a total of $1,199,154 in donations from just these three entities, leaving only $28,456 unaccounted for.

It seems that Fidelity Charitable must be another of the remaining five significant donors in 2020. But that leaves two I cannot find, and it is where I have hit a wall. It seems plausible to me that any of David Magerman, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, or the Bohemian Foundation may be our missing donors, but none of them have responded to my emails. I know I am not the New York Times or anything, but an acknowledgement would be nice. It is also possible the two remaining significant donors are corporations or individuals I have not considered. The CFA did not respond to requests for comment, but I am happy to update this post if it ever does.

I have been able to account for half the contributions received by the Campaign for Accountability in 2020, including three of its five biggest funders. I have no idea if the remaining two major donors are connected to tech companies seeding astroturf, but somehow I doubt it. I am a steadfast believer in Hanlon’s Razor and, until there is an indication of malfeasance, I am okay with assuming some philanthropists are happy to give the organization at least $260,000 apiece because they believe in its mission and not because they want to sway it.

Still, it is strange that the CFA does not list its funders. Two of its biggest have never been listed by the TTP as supporters, likely meaning their CFA donations went elsewhere. That is fine, but I wish we knew more. I wish this whole organization was a little more transparent and accountable.

This is all a bit rich coming from the CFA, which has previously raised the spectre of a conflict of interest for other organizations. For example, a 2017 report about the Energy and Policy Institute raised some familiar concerns:

[…] One of EPI’s top goals is to reveal the hidden influence of fossil fuel and utility companies. At the same time, however, EPI is opaque about its own funders.

[…]

Despite its opaque background, the media regularly covers EPI’s reports and interviews its employees without questioning the group’s affiliations. On May 9, 2017, EPI released a report claiming that “utility ratepayers are forced to fund the Edison Electric Institute and other political organizations.” On June 3, 2017, The New York Times mentioned the report in an article about wind energy and simply characterized EPI as an organization “which supports renewables.”

Contrary to the image it presents, the EPI may not be a standalone non-profit; a tax filing from Eric Schmidt’s foundation suggests it is the responsibility of the Sustainable Markets Foundation, which is a non-profit. I could not find a second source for this information but, if it is true, it sure has echoes of the CFA’s ownership of TTP: opacity in its funding, and unquestioning media citations. To its credit, one key difference is that the CFA does not hide its responsibility for the TTP.

Then there was the time the CFA profiled Engine, which presented itself as a lobbying group for startup tech companies, but which appeared to quietly advance Google’s interests. A followup report raised possible impropriety when Engine filed an amicus brief arguing for Google’s side in Oracle v. Google. But nowhere in the article does CFA mention its Google Transparency Project reportedly received funding from Oracle. Even though this is not a courtroom, surely this would be a fine time to acknowledge what appears to be a conflict of interest.

Maybe this seems to you like I spent a lot of time digging into an organization that is merely inconsistent in its investigations — not underhanded and not a front organization, just not applying the same scrutiny across the board. But the TTP itself has raised questions in its findings about inconsistent behaviour that warrants further inquiry. Several days into writing this piece, the TTP published an investigation into Apple’s fervent defence of its trademark, even raising objections against tiny businesses that nobody would confuse with the tech company. But, the TTP says, Apple’s choice of what to fight and what to let slide seems “arbitrary”, thus completing the transformation of intellectual property law into a branch of App Review.

Fine, I added that last part, but the TTP did call it “arbitrary”.

For what seems like the hundredth time, I will stress I have not seen evidence of impropriety by the Campaign for Accountability or the Tech Transparency Project. It does not appear to be anything like a front for other companies trying to take these big ones down a peg. But I do question the CFA’s decision to keep hidden its major supporters while advocating for policies in a way that looks inconsistent. This could all be cleared up by the CFA. I do not think many people would be surprised to see the funders I found; they each donate to hundreds or thousands of recipients. When I used MacOS’ Preview application to search Fidelity Charitable’s tax return, my admittedly old MacBook Air seized up and sounded like it was turning into a hovercraft — the PDF file has thousands of pages’ worth of grant recipients. These charities are massive.

The Campaign for Accountability is not a big lobbying or public interest organization, and its Tech Transparency Project is playing an impressively conspicuous role in media coverage. Some of its work is very good. But its parent organization should be less shy about its donors so it is obvious it is backed without the expectation of favour, and its reports are produced without any conflicts of interest.

Apologies or thanks to Mike Ginn for the headline inspiration. Also, the Nonprofit Explorer from ProPublica is a wildly useful resource marred only by the number of times it pestered me to sign up for the organization’s newsletter.


  1. Oracle now funds the conservative-leaning Internet Accountability Project↩︎

  2. Amazon, Google — well, Alphabet — and Meta are listed by Open Secrets as internet companies. Amazon and Meta outspend Oracle, but not Google, the original target of the TTP’s investigations. ↩︎

Microsoft Says It Is Merely Experimenting With Ads in Windows 11’s File Explorer

Tom Warren, the Verge:

Microsoft appears to be testing a new type of ad inside File Explorer on Windows 11. Microsoft MVP and Twitter user Florian Beaubois discovered an ad in the latest test build of Windows 11, prompting users to check out the Microsoft Editor. While the ads might have appeared for some Windows 11 users, Microsoft says it was a mistake.

“This was an experimental banner that was not intended to be published externally and was turned off,” says Brandon LeBlanc, senior program manager for Windows, in a statement to The Verge.

This still had to be built. Someone had to write the code to display ads in File Explorer and integrate it into this build of Windows 11. Someone thought this was a good idea.

Much like Apple’s ads for services it is depositing throughout the system, nobody wants this. Sometimes, businesses need to learn to leave money on the table when the cost to users’ trust and reputation is at stake.

Vimeo Is Telling Creators to Pay Up Thousands of Dollars

Channel 5, an interview channel on Patreon:

My Vimeo contact told me that all of my videos had been removed from Patreon because I’d exceeded Vimeo’s ‘bandwidth limit’ (image 1). Bear in mind, we haven’t uploaded a single Channel 5 video directly to Vimeo, we’ve only uploaded through Patreon’s built-in video feature, so I was confused. Not to mention, the Patreon-exclusive videos we release through only get a couple thousand views per video, which is nothing compared to our view counts on larger platforms like YouTube and Instagram.

[…]

We were asked to send our company info (Image 2), then after contesting with Vimeo for a while, I was referred to a ‘compliance team,’ who gave me an ultimatum (image 3):

Pay Vimeo between $8,000-$9000 a year, or our account will be deactivated and all videos hosted through Vimeo will be gone. Their figure for a 2 year plan is $16,500…

They note they were already paying for Vimeo, at $250 per year. To be forced to switch from that predictable cost — or even the most expensive Vimeo plan that is $900 per year in the U.S. — to one costing thousands per year is damn near extortive, especially when little warning is given. It is the kind of bait-and-switch Google is becoming known for. For what it is worth, YouTube is not a competitor for many Vimeo use cases: among other shortcomings, videos cannot be locked to embedding or playback at specific domains, and YouTube videos cannot be replaced at the same URL unless the account holder is a major brand or studio.

Mia Sato, the Verge:

Over the past four to five years, Vimeo has made a hard pivot away from being the YouTube alternative that van Baarle and other video creators originally signed up for. Vimeo CEO Anjali Sud has talked at length about this strategy shift, telling The Verge last year that the goal is to be a software company for businesses of “all sizes.” But in Vimeo’s 2021 Q4 earnings report, the focus is on the corporate clients, with Sud highlighting that some of the largest companies in the world are buying Vimeo’s products.

In a letter to shareholders in February, Sud spells the shift out in black and white: “Today we are a technology platform, not a viewing destination. We are a B2B solution, not the indie version of YouTube.”

Andy Baio:

Vimeo says they’re only asking the top 1% of bandwidth-users to pay up, but that’s a shockingly low bar: one creator said their most-viewed subscriber-only video had only 815 views, enough to put them in the top 1% of all users and requiring a $3,500 yearly plan.

The criteria Vimeo is using sounds banal but is alarmingly elastic. If major creators begin leaving the platform, the cutoff for what constitutes the top 1% of users drops further. It means someone who was happily using Vimeo at $20 per month may be required to multiply that budget by ten with little warning.

Vimeo has been around since the early 2000s and picked up a reputation for quality and creator friendliness. Since it became an independent company two years ago, it has seen the money in enterprise accounts and has apparently decided to tank its reputation. What a loss.

In Three Cases, the FTC Has Demanded Deletion of Algorithms, Code, or Models Derived From Illegally Collected Data

Kate Kaye, Protocol:

When it comes to today’s data-centric business models, algorithmic systems and the data used to build and train them are intellectual property, products that are core to how many companies operate and generate revenue. While in the past the FTC has required companies to disgorge ill-gotten monetary gains obtained through deceptive practices, forcing them to delete algorithmic systems built with ill-gotten data could become a more routine approach, one that modernizes FTC enforcement to directly affect how companies do business.

[…]

The winds inside the FTC seem to be shifting. “Commissioners have previously voted to allow data protection law violators to retain algorithms and technologies that derive much of their value from ill-gotten data,” former FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra, now director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, wrote in a statement related to the Everalbum case. He said requiring the company to “forfeit the fruits of its deception” was “an important course correction.”

As with authorities requiring Clearview to delete identification data, I am confused about how it is possible to extricate illegally-acquired materials from software like machine learning models. In the Everalbum case (PDF), for example, the FTC ordered the company to delete data derived from the collection of faces from users who deactivated their accounts, as well as any algorithms or models created from that information. But it is possible some or all of those photos were used to train the machine learning models used by all users. Without rolling the model back to a state before the creation of any data relevant to the FTC’s order, how is this possible? I am genuinely curious. This sounds like a far way to treat businesses that have exploited illegally acquired data, but I am unclear how it works.

The headline on this article is ridiculous, by the way. It claims this penalty strategy “spells death for algorithms”, but the article clarifies “the term ‘algorithm’ can cover any piece of code that can make a software application do a set of actions”. Whoever picked this headline entirely divorced it from Kaye’s excellent reporting.

iOS and iPadOS 15.4 Released

Federico Viticci, MacStories:

While regular Face ID works with full-face recognition, enabling this toggle makes Face ID less secure but adds the convenience of unlocking a phone when you’re out and wearing a mask without having to type in your passcode or use Apple Watch unlock. It’s a compromise you have to be willing to accept, and it’s exactly the option I wanted Apple to roll out two years ago when the pandemic hit.

Between January, when the first beta of iOS 15.4 was released, and today, many regions around the world have stopped requiring the wearing of masks in public places. I wish this feature was developed and released earlier in the pandemic but, given that it requires an iPhone 12 or newer model, there is probably a technical reason why it was not.

Also in this release: Universal Control, albeit still defined as a beta. Be sure to check out Viticci’s typically comprehensive exploration.

DuckDuckGo will Demote ‘Sites Associated with Russian Disinformation’ in Results

A. Khalid, Engadget:

The search engine DuckDuckGo will be down-ranking sites that spread Russian propaganda and disinformation. In a tweet, founder and CEO Gabriel Weinberg wrote that the privacy-focused search engine would be releasing updates that would ensure Russian disinformation sites rank further down in search results. Earlier this month, DuckDuckGo announced it would pause its relationship with Russian-state owned search engine Yandex.

Every search engine makes ranking decisions and adjusts them as needed. It is a normal and responsible thing to do, as clarified in a statement provided by DuckDuckGo to Khalid which reads in part:

[…] It’s also important to note that down-ranking is different from censorship. We are simply using the fact that that these sites are engaging in active disinformation campaigns as a ranking signal that the content they produce is of lower quality, just like there are signals for spammy sites and other lower-quality content. […]

Completely fair.

9to5Mac: Apple Currently Has No Plans to Release a Larger-Screen iMac

Filipe Espósito, 9to5Mac:

Sources told 9to5Mac that Apple currently has no plans to release a larger-screen iMac in the near future. The information comes from the same sources that revealed to us the plans for Mac Studio and Studio Display in advance.

Glad I hedged my bet.

Display analyst Ross Young now does not predict a bigger iMac, and says his sources got mixed up since the Studio Display has a chip and camera. Young now expects a mini-LED version of the Studio Display to launch this summer. But Ming-Chi Kuo still thinks an “iMac Pro” is coming next year and, further, does not believe mini-LED displays will expand to more products this year.

Disney Hides Behind Queer Characters While Funding Real Villains

Charles Pulliam-Moore, the Verge:

What makes Disney’s involvement in this bill’s genesis notable is that it comes at a time when the company can’t easily distance itself from the overall messiness of the situation or obfuscate the fact that it’s only now responding defensively to criticism after the fact. From Chapek’s email to Disney’s employees and his call with investors this week, one can infer that at least some of Disney’s leadership sees this as just another ideological debate between the country’s two major political parties that Disney is playing “fairly” to by giving money away to both sides.

But the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, like every other piece of legislation seemingly designed to make schools feel unsafe for queer students to exist within, isn’t just a set of ideas being bandied about by lawmakers who can’t agree on how children should be educated. The bill is, quite plainly, a set of misguided rules that are almost certain to stifle an untold number of helpful, affirming, and positive educational experiences under the auspice of preventing unhealthy interactions that truly only exist in the minds of bigoted homophobes.

This bill — much like the policies being passed around the United States discriminating against transgender minors — is truly vile. It is hard to imagine Disney’s support of its cheerleaders will pay off with a specific carve-out, but you never know.

Twitter Makes It Easier to Get to a Reverse-Chronological Timeline, but Harder to Stay There

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

Twitter today is updating its app to make it easier to switch between the algorithmically programmed Home timeline and the feed that displays the “Latest” tweets. Typically, when users want to move between timelines, they have to tap the “sparkle” icon in the top-right of the screen, then do so again to switch back. But starting today on iOS, tapping that icon will offer the option to pin both the Home and Latest timelines to your Twitter Home page, so you can instead swipe back and forth between the two feeds.

True to this pitch, this update makes it far easier to toggle between the two views. But if you prefer always using a reverse-chronological timeline, this update makes it worse: when the Twitter app is kicked out of memory, it will return to the algorithmic timeline by default.

If you enjoy switching between the two views regularly, this update is probably great. But if you prefer always seeing a timeline sorted by date, this over-engineered solution is probably not what you are looking for. Thankfully, Twitter’s latest API version is making third-party apps an even more compelling choice. For example, Tweetbot 7 includes a Statistics tab again because of these API updates.

Update: This change lasted all of four days.

Publishers Say Companies Selling Contextual Ad Tools Are Scraping Their Data Unfairly

Ryan Barwick, Morning Brew:

Now that third-party cookies are dying and some ad dollars are shifting to contextual advertising — ads based on the content of the media, not on personal information — publishers want a (better) seat at the table and stronger terms as the industry adopts new technologies.

I think Barwick should have acknowledged this is a return to contextual advertising. That is how ads used to be sold on the internet.

Continuing:

Publishers have generally accepted that these companies will crawl their sites in the name of brand safety, viewability, and the like, but they haven’t agreed to let contextual vendors sell this data for targeting, argued Danny Spears, chief operating officer at the Ozone Project. And that’s in “direct competition” with the publisher’s own sales team.

[…]

More specifically, IAS, one of the largest ad verification companies in the world, has told publishers that it’s all or nothing — that a publisher can’t pick and choose how IAS scans a site or what it does with that data. “They won’t separate it,” said Reeves.

A disgusting practice, but an unsurprising one. Thousands of ad tech companies that were spawned in the anti-privacy heyday of the last decade need to justify their continued existence, if only in the shallowest possible way.