Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for May, 2022

XKCD on Apple Maps

I spent last week playing tour guide for visiting extended family. We travelled across Southern Alberta, from Banff and Lake Louise to small towns in the southeastern corner of the province. To give credit where credit is due, the directions provided by Apple Maps were generally very good. It still tells me to make a u-turn when it is legally prohibited, but I vastly prefer the format and timing of its spoken directions to Google’s.

But — holy crap — do its place listings remain poor. Many of the restaurants, bars, and attractions I searched were listed with incorrect hours, or had other details that were clearly wrong. A Denny’s was listed as being “$$$$” — very expensive. It became easier to use Google Maps to find places since its place listings were generally more accurate.

However, I use Apple Maps often enough that I want it to be better, so I reported these problems to Apple. Over the past few days, I have received notifications indicating these places have been updated. But when I check, my fixes are not in place and the details I reported are still wrong.

Apple is a multi-trillion-dollar company, and its maps offering is less accurate than Google’s, the details on companies’ Facebook pages, and even third-party sites like TripAdvisor, which Apple apparently relies on for some of its place details.

These are the kinds of things I worry about when rumours start flying about WWDC. Many updates are reportedly planned for the updates Apple will begin releasing to the public this autumn, and there are radical new products that may be announced as soon as this year. I know it is somewhat unfair to be concerned about this stuff given how large Apple is; surely it should be able to run multiple projects at the same time. It is in the middle of rebuilding Maps, too, with mixed success.

This leaves me with questions about what Apple’s long-term strategy is with Maps. After this giant rebuild — now covering 19% of Earth’s land area almost entirely in rich places — is there a strategy for the slow, boring work of keeping all of these places updated? My recent experiences have not been convincing. There is hope — I hear Apple Maps really is better in the United States. How about for the rest of us?

Editing Wikipedia for Pay

Let me tell you a little story.

In 2019, after Wikipedia articles were used for advertising by outdoor clothing company the North Face, I set myself the task of digging into another phenomenon I knew was happening behind the scenes. Marketing agencies were using Wikipedia articles as part of their search optimization campaigns, inserting URLs on behalf of clients into relevant articles’ sources and references. When I did an initial web search, I could not find articles exploring this angle, so I bookmarked it for a later time.

Last night, I finally started digging into this story properly. After a couple of hours of research into specific Wikipedia accounts I found connected to a couple of different agencies, I found this story had already been covered many times, going at least as far back as a 2007 Associated Press story. Then, in 2013, Charles Arthur reported for the Guardian about a cease-and-desist order sent by the Wikimedia Foundation to Wiki-PR, banning the agency and its hundreds of sockpuppet accounts from editing the site. Wikipedia enacted a policy for paid editors and those with other conflicts of interest the following year.

The best investigation I found into the phenomenon of marketing agencies editing Wikipedia articles was published in 2015 in the Atlantic. Even though it is old, I recommend this piece wholeheartedly. Joe Pinsker:

In a way, undisclosed paid edits are just a smaller instance of a much more foundational problem for a site that strives for unalloyed “neutrality.” All Wikipedia editors, whether volunteer or paid, come to their keyboards with some kind of bias. The presence of money in this equation is never a reliable indication that some information is untrustworthy, since it’s frequently the case that the people who feel they have the biggest stake in promoting their views on Wikipedia are often the best informed. Douglas Beall might receive money from medical-device manufacturers, but part of the reason they’re paying him in the first place is because he’s an expert on certain medical devices. Moreover, plenty of people hold views for which they receive no compensation that would nevertheless render them inadequate editors. For example, a volunteer Greenpeace activist might not be the most impartial steward of a page about the coal industry. Money is but one limited signifier of information’s quality.

I also found that Wikipedia maintains a list of paid editors, some of which are banned for failing to adhere to the site’s policies.

These articles are all about using Wikipedia articles for brand management. I still have not found a great article about the surreptitious use of articles’ sources for boosting an organization’s search rankings; perhaps I will actually write that one day. But for now I thought this collection of old, non-newsworthy articles was worth your time if you missed them, especially the 2015 Atlantic piece.

Rediscovering the Mac

Federico Viticci, of MacStories, famously enjoys and depends on iPads for his day-to-day work. But he has been testing a MacBook Pro for the past six months and has some thoughts about its multitasking capabilities:

Once again, I’m not bringing up these specific examples to argue that Apple should create similar features on iPadOS. Quite the opposite: Apple by itself can’t possibly cover the full spectrum of advanced features required by pro users on its platforms; they need a solid, trusted ecosystem of third-party developers to fill in the gaps. While macOS continues to allow developers to build and make a living out of power-user tools that are deeply integrated with the operating system, developers on iPadOS are still facing many technological restrictions (lack of APIs), performance limitations, and App Store rules that prevent them from doing the same.

In other words: if Apple can’t fill those functionality gaps for power users on iPad and won’t let third-party developers do so either, those gaps will remain unfilled. The difference now, compared to, say, five years ago, is that iPad users have solid alternatives in the new generation of Mac computers.

There are some people who will probably read this piece through the lens of a nonexistent platform war between MacOS and iPadOS. If they are a Mac user, they may think Viticci’s observations are obvious and unremarkable.

I think that is a myopic way to read this story. It is useful to see this perspective from a longtime and proficient iPad user who clearly enjoys the platform but is increasingly frustrated by its artificial limitations. Similarly, there are things Viticci dislikes about MacOS — like overlapping windows — which he makes more iPad-like. I know many people who use MacOS apps in a similar way, either running them in full-screen or in clear fractions of the display area. I am not one of those people; I love my overlapping windows. But the key thing, Viticci says, is that MacOS lets you choose.

Regardless of which system you prefer for your day-to-day work, I think you will get something out of this. I have an appreciation for both platforms but I wish Apple could figure out how capable it wants iPadOS to be. It is hard to believe the platform has retained essentially the same multitasking and app distribution mechanism even as it has begun to share processors with the Mac. We all know it is capable of so much more.

RealityOS Trademarks Filed

Parker Ortolani:

It cannot be a coincidence that the “realityOS” trademark owned by a company that seemingly doesn’t exist and is specifically for “wearable computer hardware” is being filed around the world on June 8, 2022.

The trademarks are also the only ones owned by this company “Realityo Systems LLC.” They were originally filed on December 8, 2021. This was just two months before “realityOS” began showing up in Apple source code.

What a scoop. While Bloomberg has been reporting on this name for years and it has appeared in iOS builds, this is the first time there is public documentation of the name that almost certainly must be from Apple.

Evangelos Kassos:

Looks like the RealityOS “Mark” (logo) is using SF Pro in the Uruguay Trademark entry found on the WIPO Database

Filipe Espósito, 9to5Mac:

For instance, one of Apple’s shell companies is “Yosemite Research LLC,” which Apple uses to register macOS names like Yosemite and Big Sur. Last year, this company registered the trademark “Monterey” days before WWDC 2021, and it turned out that Monterey was the official name of macOS 12.

And here’s the best part: both Yosemite Research LLC and Realityo Systems LLC are registered at the same address, which points to “Corporation Trust Center” — a real company that provides trademark services of which Apple is a client.

Lots of smoke for there to be no fire. It sure seems like Apple’s headset project is getting closer to a public announcement, and hearing something about it at WWDC would make sense if Apple wants third-party apps available at launch.

This has to be one of the stranger products rumoured to be coming down Apple’s pipeline. I have not written much about it because there seems to be so little to say right now, and my guards are up on something I cannot envision being interested in yet. Most every new product Apple has released since the iPod has fit into an existing market and redefined it around Apple’s standard. The iPod was a better portable music player; the iPhone was a better smartphone; the iPad a better tablet. Even the Apple Watch replaced a mechanical model for some watch-wearers while also becoming a fixture on the wrists of people who rarely or never wore a watch before.

But a headset? That is a pretty small market right now of about ten million units sold in 2021, mostly to gamers and enterprise. Unlike phones or media players or watches, consumers are not yet adopting these things as part of their day-to-day life. Some people do wear glasses every day, but that is so they can see. If I did not have to wear glasses every day, I do not know that I would choose to. But people do wear sunglasses. Is that the market Apple is going after — sunglasses, but better?

Here’s How Google Will Place a Million Dollars’ Worth of Ads

Nandini Jammi and Claire Atkin of Check My Ads:

For about 2 weeks in Q3 of 2021, Sebastian (not their real name) accidentally ran a Google ad campaign for his client without any of the usual guardrails. He blew through a million dollars of the client’s budget before realizing that he had forgotten to turn on the brand safety filters, domain blocks and keyword blocklists he normally uses. It was a mistake.

He got it under control ASAP, but in those 15 days, Sebastian unintentionally obtained the results to an interesting experiment: where does Google place $1M worth of ads when you leave it up to them? What happens when you let Google place ads for you? Thanks to Sebastian, who sent us the sitelist of his botched campaign, we now have an answer.

The second most popular placement is a bucket of “unknown” websites. Apparently, Google knows which websites these are and all of them are allowed to show ads from Google, but website owners are able to prevent advertisers from knowing which sites received their spending.

The most popular site for this campaign? You will never guess.

A Connection Between Mass Murders and Social Media Is Probably a Red Herring

Naomi Nix and Cat Zakrzewski, the Washington Post:

The way that generation uses social media more generally could render years of work to spot and identify public signs of upcoming violence obsolete, social media experts warn.

“There is this shift toward more-private spaces, more-ephemeral content,” said Evelyn Douek, a senior research fellow at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. “The content moderation tools that platforms have been building and that we’ve been arguing about are kind of dated or talking about the last war.”

Many recent mass murderers have established a relationship between their horrific crimes and social media platforms. One of the primary sources of information about these criminals’ beliefs has been the evidence left behind in their own posts. That is also true of the hate crime in Buffalo, New York earlier this month. But it is worth being skeptical given that Americans are not particularly active on social media compared to people in other countries.

Reporting the following day from Cristiano Lima in the Washington Post’s “Technology 202” newsletter struck a more cautionary tone:

But former tech staffers, researchers and industry critics alike said rushing to draw a connection between the shooting and social media — particularly a causal one — is misguided and may distract from broader debates about the cause of such attacks.

“We should take care with how much we center the role of platforms unless there’s evidence to suggest that they substantively contributed to the violence,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, a think tank that researches online extremism.

Just about every country has social media, violent video games, believers in conspiracy theories, and guns in private hands. But only one nation is an outlier in both guns and mass shootings. Beware of the people attempting, as always, to shift blame from guns to anything else. Three full days of conversations about how many doors are on buildings is unhelpful and distracting. Blaming social media is probably just as ineffectual, though it is one avenue for deeper beliefs to spread. There is a single policy area where changes must be made first: guns.

A Profile of PimEyes, Which Performs Facial Recognition on Public Photos

Kashmir Hill, New York Times:

For $29.99 a month, a website called PimEyes offers a potentially dangerous superpower from the world of science fiction: the ability to search for a face, finding obscure photos that would otherwise have been as safe as the proverbial needle in the vast digital haystack of the internet.

A search takes mere seconds. You upload a photo of a face, check a box agreeing to the terms of service and then get a grid of photos of faces deemed similar, with links to where they appear on the internet. The New York Times used PimEyes on the faces of a dozen Times journalists, with their consent, to test its powers.

PimEyes found photos of every person, some that the journalists had never seen before, even when they were wearing sunglasses or a mask, or their face was turned away from the camera, in the image used to conduct the search.

You do not even need to pay the $30 per month fee. You can test PimEyes’ abilities for free.

PimEyes disclaims responsibility the results of its search tool through some ostensibly pro-privacy language. In a blog post published, according to metadata visible in the page source, one day before the Times’ investigation, it says its database “contains no personal information”, like someone’s name or contact details. The company says it does not even have any photos, storing only “faceprint” data and URLs where matching photos may be found.

Setting aside the question of whether a “faceprint” ought to be considered personal information — it is literally information about a person, so I think it should — perhaps you have spotted the sneaky argument PimEyes is attempting to make here. It can promote the security of its database and its resilience against theft all it wants, but its real privacy problems are created entirely through its front-end marketed features. If its technology works anywhere near as well as marketed, a search will lead to webpages that do contain the person’s name and contact details.

PimEyes shares the problem found with any of these people finding tools, no matter their source material: they do not seem dangerous in isolation, but it is their ability to coalesce and correlate different data points to create a complete profile. Take a picture of anyone, then dump it into PimEyes to find their name and, perhaps, a username or email address correlated with the image. Use a different people-based search engine to find profiles across the web that share the same online handle, or accounts registered with that email address. Each of those searches will undoubtedly lead to greater pools of information, and all of this is perfectly legal. The only way to avoid being a subject is to submit an opt-out request to services that offer it. Otherwise, if you exist online in any capacity, you are a token in this industry.

Hill:

PimEyes users are supposed to search only for their own faces or for the faces of people who have consented, Mr. Gobronidze said. But he said he was relying on people to act “ethically,” offering little protection against the technology’s erosion of the long-held ability to stay anonymous in a crowd. PimEyes has no controls in place to prevent users from searching for a face that is not their own, and suggests a user pay a hefty fee to keep damaging photos from an ill-considered night from following him or her forever.

This is such transparent bullshit. Gobronidze has to know that not everybody using its service is searching for pictures of themselves or those who have consented. As Hill later writes, it requires more stringent validation of a request to opt out of its results than it does a request to search.

Update: On July 16, Mara Hvistendahl of the Intercept reported on a particularly disturbing use of PimEyes:

The online facial recognition search engine PimEyes allows anyone to search for images of children scraped from across the internet, raising a host of alarming possible uses, an Intercept investigation has found.

It would be more acceptable if this service were usable only by a photo subject or their parent or guardian. As it is, PimEyes stands by its refusal to gate image searches, permitting any creep to search for images of anyone else through facial recognition.

Instagram Prioritizes Reels Above All Else in an Attempt to Catch Up to TikTok

Sarah Frier and Brad Stone, Bloomberg:

A company as big as Meta, with 3.6 billion users across Instagram, Facebook, and WhatsApp, has lots of ways to push features on people. Reels now appear in every Instagram user’s feed. Once someone clicks on a Reel, they’re suddenly in a full-screen mode where swiping up or down only gets you to more Reels. This design tweak can be jarring, like turning a corner in a quiet art gallery and finding yourself in the middle of a dance party.

Instagram is planning to take it further, testing a redesign that starts users in full-screen, TikTok-style video mode when they open the app. For Facebook’s lifeline to the youth demographic, this is a major departure. Instagram became a generation’s go-to social app on the strength of its filtered, aspirational lifestyle photography. Now the company is actively killing that identity in the name of beating TikTok, and it might not even work.

I know a couple of people who have been opted into this redesigned feed and it has been a negative experience all around. For anyone posting anything other than Reels, the gradient overlay gets in the way.

Facebook seems to treat Instagram as a hollow shell into which they can jam any app idea they would like to duplicate. That makes it unlike any other social network. Facebook itself, YouTube, Twitter — all of these properties have each retained their core idea while adding new features. But Instagram is jettisoning the way people actually use it in favour of jamming through this embarrassing identity crisis.

Frier and Stone:

TikTok, owned by China’s ByteDance Ltd., is the most-downloaded app in the world. Starting in 2020, Americans spent more time on TikTok than they did on Facebook or Instagram. This year, the app is expected to overtake YouTube. TikTok, which declined to comment on its competition with Reels, instead sent details on its own creator payment program.

TikTok’s growth has been nothing short of extraordinary, with some blame or credit given to existing tech company dominance. TikTok saturated YouTube and Facebook’s platforms with advertising just a couple of years ago, and changing behaviour during the pandemic accelerated its growth path.

If you are someone who is worried about the world’s biggest social media sensation reporting back to an authoritarian surveillance state, you should know that virtually nothing has changed. Every ad network has involvement by shady characters and they have all been privacy hellscapes in their own way. Better polices on privacy and data protection would help. Lawmakers should have been quicker to take action many years ago, but whether numbed by access or the assumption that dominant tech companies would always be American, it is only now being seen as a concern. The best time to take action was years ago; the next best time is now, but any policies enacted will probably be for the wrong reasons.

Google Deja Vu at I/O 2022

Ron Amadeo, Ars Technica:

Google held its I/O conference earlier this month, and for longtime Google watchers, the event felt like a seance. Google CEO Sundar Pichai stepped on stage for his keynote address and channeled the spirits of long-dead Google products. “I’m hearing… something about an Android tablet? And a smartwatch?” he seemed to say.

[…]

Like most Google products in the Sundar Pichai era, what will really matter for all of these resurrections is if Google continues to care about them for several years. Way too many Google products seem to have a one-year roadmap. The company pins 100 percent of its hopes on a project’s initial launch, and the product is canceled if it isn’t an overnight success. Google rarely allows products enough runway to adapt to feedback or convince the “wait and see” crowd. The problem is that Google has burned so many of its early adopters over the years that there are not many of them left.

I wonder whether it is true that Google has few remaining enthusiasts. Who else is buying its Pixel phones, if not for users committed to the company’s specific vision for Android devices? Google’s problem is getting everybody else to care about these products beyond its early adopters, and all of those people need time and evidence of ongoing commitment to buy into that vision too.

FTC Fines Twitter $150 Million for Using Security Features for Targeted Advertising

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission:

The Federal Trade Commission is taking action against Twitter, Inc. for deceptively using account security data for targeted advertising. Twitter asked users to give their phone numbers and email addresses to protect their accounts. The firm then profited by allowing advertisers to use this data to target specific users. Twitter’s deception violates a 2011 FTC order that explicitly prohibited the company from misrepresenting its privacy and security practices. Under the proposed order, Twitter must pay a $150 million penalty and is banned from profiting from its deceptively collected data.

This issue was disclosed by Twitter in 2019, the same year Facebook acknowledged doing basically the same thing.

What It is Like Here

Sometimes, when it seems like there are no words left, a writer finds the last few hundred that feel relevant and right. This post deals with some pretty heavy subject matter, for obvious and painful reasons.

Albert Burneko, Defector:

Those 19 little kids will never get to learn anything else about the world after what this country showed them in the violent, incomprehensible last moments of their lives, when the people who loved them could not protect them or be with them or help them make sense of it. What they learned then, whatever they learned, is the verdict. Watch America decide that this is the only way things can be. Watch it sentence more little kids to abbreviated lives and lonely, terrified, violent deaths. Watch the grownups squabble and roll the dice on every small new person who greets the world with eager curiosity, who doesn’t know better than to just assume that life can be gentle and guided by care. Watch them negotiate each little life against what they want to pretend to believe about some garbled shit written on a piece of parchment 200 years ago by no one who could imagine what happened in that school on Tuesday. This is what it’s like here. […]

It is unsurprising to see many people my age reporting a loss of confidence in lawmakers and political systems that never fail to fail. It is governance being dismantled from the inside, with predictable and devastating results.

Creating Borders Around Data

David McCabe and Adam Satariano, New York Times:

The core idea of “digital sovereignty” is that the digital exhaust created by a person, business or government should be stored inside the country where it originated, or at least handled in accordance with privacy and other standards set by a government. In cases where information is more sensitive, some authorities want it to be controlled by a local company, too.

That’s a shift from today. Most files were initially stored locally on personal computers and company mainframes. But as internet speeds increased and telecommunications infrastructure advanced over the past two decades, cloud computing services allowed someone in Germany to store photos on a Google server in California, or a business in Italy to run a website off Amazon Web Services operated from Seattle.

In authoritarian states, governments use this theory to exercise greater control and surveillance over people. But their behaviour should not be conflated with data sovereignty overall. It is entirely reasonable for individuals to believe their national rights are upheld when it comes to their data, but that has often not been the case. Instead, people individually contract jurisdiction of their photos and location and web history and financial records to companies almost always based in the United States. For many of us, this is a rights regression. This is an unsurprising tidal shift given the U.S.’ notoriously absent personal privacy laws and its exploitative data economy.

Contrary to the Times’ reporting above, a user in Germany is more likely now to have their Google photos stored somewhere closer than a Californian server. Google operates several data centres in Europe. This is not a consequence of GDPR; many of them are older than GDPR’s introduction. Even though internet speeds are faster, latency is still a concern and geographic distance is a significant factor. It would be interesting — albeit niche — if individual users could choose where their data is domiciled, much like corporate users often can.

Apple’s Jane Horvath on Privacy

Jane Horvath, Apple’s chief privacy officer, as quoted by Claire Stern in Elle:

[…] So every day you hear or read about different incursions … advertising is big right now, and I think people would be quite surprised by the amount of data that exists out there in the B2B world about them. That’s something that we’re very much trying to bring to the attention of our customers, not because we want them to make a choice one way or the other, but because we actually want them to be aware of it.

Apple executives are media trained and it is rare for them to stray off-message; this interview with Horvath is not an exception. But I thought this segment was notable for its shift in perspective. Much has been written about the effects of Apple’s recent privacy efforts, such as App Tracking Transparency, from the effects they have on advertisers.

But perhaps not enough attention has been directed toward the insidious data enrichment industry powering business-to-business (B2B) tools. Plenty of software packages for businesses can automatically extrapolate an entire persona from nothing more than an email address or a phone number. Many of them can associate personal and professional identities, therefore erasing any line between the two, and establish a more comprehensive picture of a business’ internal matters. It sounds invasive to normal people, but all of this has been normalized in the business-to-business software world.

Horvath and Apple may be worried about how their devices and software feed this industry, but this is not something that can be restrained by a single company, no matter how large it is. Careful regulation is the only viable path for curtailing these ridiculous privacy abuses.

Elon Musk’s Crash Course

Eric Deggans, NPR:

Like a few other TV projects these days, the documentary zeroes in on the strategy employed by many Silicon Valley leaders to talk up the possibilities of their companies’ products before their achievements are fully realized. It’s a “fake it until you make it” style that allows companies to harness enthusiasm and capital to push toward goals which might otherwise seem impossible to reach.

But Elon Musk’s Crash Course is a straightforward look at the dangers of such an approach when the product involved controls a speeding automobile.

I watched this documentary tonight. Even somewhat passive followers of Tesla’s announcements — myself included — will likely be familiar with much of its contents. But seeing it laid out in a single hour-and-change record is an arresting experience.

One Tesla “Full Self Driving” beta participant was interviewed for the film, and something she said toward the end stuck with me:

There are definitely people who do not agree with Tesla’s approach. I don’t feel that it’s risky. I have never felt endangered, okay?

Setting aside the possibility of some creative editing — I have no way of knowing whether she said these three sentences in this exact order — this made me realize the biggest flaw in this film: it is solely focused on the risks to Tesla drivers. There are certainly several examples of drivers being killed because they were, in the words of several interview subjects, lulled to “complacency” in their cars, perhaps in part by Tesla’s overconfident marketing. But it is the risk to surrounding people that is barely considered in this documentary aside from some video clips at the end.

I would also not feel endangered to be in the driver’s seat of a Tesla on a highway if I treated its automation features as slightly more advanced cruise control. But if I am a cyclist riding in a crappy painted bicycle lane, I certainly hope the Tesla driver I am riding beside does not think their car can drive itself. It is one thing for a driver to be texting behind the wheel of any car knowing full well they are doing something dangerous. It is an entirely different thing if they believe their inattentiveness is compensated for by the car’s cameras and software.

In the U.S., this film can be seen on Hulu; in Canada, it is on Crave.

A Guide For Tech Journalism

Nirit Weiss-Blatt, Techdirt:

Tech journalism is evolving, including how it reports on and critiques tech companies. At the same time, tech journalists should still serve as bullshit detectors and hype slayers. The following tips are intended to help navigate the terrain.

As a general rule, beware of overconfident techies bragging about their innovation capabilities [and] overconfident critics accusing that innovation of atrocities. If featured in your article, provide evidence and diverse perspectives to balance their quotes.

I thought this article and the linked piece by Lee Vinsel, from February 2021, are fair analyses of technology hype and scaremongering. The most headline-grabbing worries are probably inaccurate as they are often based on marketing that is equally wrong. The concerns we ought to be paying attention can be less conspicuous. Similarly, the promises made by tech companies are often hopelessly unrealistic. It does not matter whether they are showing off a new product on a stage or responding to a legal body — they are marketing and spinning, and their claims should be treated skeptically.

The Apple Services Experience Is Not Good Enough

Benjamin Mayo:

They are built to a passing grade, but nothing more. Basic features found in services from rival companies are either lacking altogether in Apple’s apps, or implemented half-heartedly and performance is sluggish. Browsing in Music and TV is painful, with an over-reliance on the infinite scroll. New content is just tacked on the bottom of already long lists. Meanwhile, the navigation bars are blank when they could include simple shortcut buttons and filters to help users navigate and explore. Moreover, these apps feature too many loading states and too much waiting around. They are akin to janky web apps, rather than richly-compelling responsive experiences.

There is more commentary over at Michael Tsai’s site.

This is something I think about a lot, especially as Apple grows Services revenue and competes in more of these markets. Apple’s native apps on these devices simply are not good enough, and that is bananas. The company’s whole thing is that it makes the entire widget, so hardware, software, and services can work seamlessly together. But they do not. They feel brittle, like I am using prototypes where any deviation from a golden path is a risky endeavour.

There are plenty of engineers working hard on all of these products, and there are evidently people who care. The Music app on MacOS is better than it used to be. Alas, it remains a far cry from how it ought to be, and only managers and executives have the power to set quality as a priority.

Every year for the past few, my main hope for WWDC is a renewed emphasis on stability and higher standards. The growth of this segment of Apple’s revenue is impressive, and its web capabilities are way better than they used to be — remember MobileMe? But there is still so far before Apple’s software and, particularly, services reflect the qualities of its thoughtful and elegant hardware.

What a High-Quality Social Platform Looks Like

Josh Kramer, writing at New Public:

What separates a forum like MetaFilter from Quora, Reddit, or even 8chan? The answer is culture — rules and expectations, developed over a long time. To be clear: MetaFilter isn’t good because it has a lot of old rules, it’s good because it has the right old rules. Below, I lay out some unique, interesting qualities that have developed at MetaFilter over the years and how they’ve contributed to a culture that is still thriving after two decades.

Not only does MetaFilter have many rules, its moderators earnestly enforce them; but they do not always get it right and are subject to their own biases. While I generally favour the idea of larger social networks moving their moderation policies closer to those offered by MeFi, the sorts of stories linked to by a commenter on Kramer’s article paint a picture of moderators who sometimes struggle to identify bigoted conversations when it is not immediately obvious.

Going through some of those older threads, another thing becomes clear: complaints about the sensitivity of moderators are as commonplace then as they are now. There are plenty of complaints from users who feel moderators are oversensitive; there are also plenty from people who feel they are not taking an active-enough role. Even the places on the web where conversations are pretty good have a hard time keeping them that way, as a wander through the etiquette and policy feedback area makes clear.

MetaFilter occupies an increasingly niche part of the web — last year, it was forced to cut back on moderation — and I wonder if its approach can be replicated or improved upon elsewhere. It sounds like Twitter’s Birdwatch is an attempt to do something similar.

Grubhub’s ‘Free’ Lunch Program Was a Disaster for Restaurant Workers

Amanda Silberling, TechCrunch:

Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. [on May 17], New Yorkers could use a Grubhub promo code to get a $15 discount on lunch. Naturally, restaurants got flooded with an unexpected deluge of orders. According to Buzzfeed, a worker at a Mexican restaurant in Harlem hand-delivered orders herself via Uber, since their in-house delivery driver was too overloaded. An employee at Greenberg’s Bagels in Brooklyn also told Buzzfeed that they received 50 orders in an hour, whereas they typically receive about 10 orders from Grubhub per day.

Across New York City, Grubhub said that it received about 6,000 orders per minute. Within an hour, some users tweeted that the promo code was no longer working, or that restaurants had marked themselves closed to avoid receiving any more orders. All in all, many orders got delayed and/or cancelled, but restaurant workers and delivery drivers were most adversely impacted, struggling to fulfill orders at an impossible rate.

Grubhub says it told restaurant owners about this promotion, but some said they had no idea. Local blogs promoted the deal last week and indicated it was a limited-time and limited-quantity order. But that does not mean restaurants were prepared for this scale — and neither was Grubhub.

Luke Fortney, Eater:

“Between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., all hell broke loose,” says Max Zumwalt, chef of Hana House, a forthcoming Korean food hall at Borough Hall. The two-story operation, which is currently open for takeout and delivery ahead of its full opening this year, typically receives between 40 and 50 lunch orders on a normal Tuesday afternoon. Yesterday, it received more than 100 in the first 20 minutes of the promotion.

[…]

For some restaurants, more orders didn’t necessarily mean more money. “Even though it was our busiest day ever, we made less money,” Zumwalt says. The Hana House chef says the restaurant’s average order size dropped by about $10, with most people placing orders of $15 or less to make use of the promotion, while he had to refund roughly 15 customers for orders he had already prepared due to technical difficulties on the delivery app.

The tense relationship between delivery app companies and restaurants, where a portion of an order’s value is taken by the company in exchange for providing delivery services, only makes sense for the restaurant if the delivery app upholds its end of the deal. That is, like, Grubhub’s one job and is still unprofitable. On Tuesday, it flunked hard when it ran this promotion. Restaurants scrambled to prepare food for it to sit in the window without a driver to pick it up.

Grubhub surely knew this promotion was causing chaos as it unfolded. It could have restricted orders using the promo code; it already said this was a limited-quantity offer. It could have better-prepared restaurant owners. But Gruhub let this thing unfold in a way that treats restaurants as interchangeable and disposable components of its business instead of the only reason anyone uses the company’s apps. And let us not forget the people who struggled most on Tuesday: underpaid restaurant staff and drivers blamed for late or undelivered food.

Reporting Live From This Glass House

If an advocacy organization is going to report on an astroturfing front group, should it not be more transparent in its own donors? That is a stance I have maintained since I reported a truncated history of donations to the Tech Transparency Project’s parent organization, the Campaign for Accountability. Surely that should be a low bar to clear — acknowledge all significant funders and donors so there is no question about what interests they represent.

In 2020, Tony Romm of the Washington Post reported on Facebook’s involvement in a newly-formed advocacy group called American Edge. Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said it was one of many funders. But according to new reporting today, that claim does not appear to hold water.

Cat Zakrzewski and Elizabeth Dwoskin, the Post:

[…] But tax records show the organization was founded entirely by Facebook, with a single donation of $4 million between December 2019 and October 2020.

Facebook’s Stone once again replied to the Post’s request for comment, this time saying Facebook provided a “seed grant” to American Edge which now, he says, has many more financial supporters. That is plausible, but it is not yet possible to check since this filing is for its 2019 tax year and it is too new for it to appear in tax documents from other nonprofits.

Of note, the Post did not obtain these tax filings itself. They were provided by the Tech Transparency Project, which is dismayed by this astroturf group advocating for Facebook’s interests and hiding its funders. But there is one little thing that is bugging me, which the Post’s reporters asked the organization about:

“As a nonprofit that solicits donations from the public, we don’t release a comprehensive list of our donors,” said Michelle Kuppersmith, executive director of Campaign for Accountability, who oversees the Tech Transparency Project. “It would be incredibly rare to find a public-facing nonprofit that does so.” Kuppersmith added that they go beyond disclosure requirements for the Tech Transparency Project “because we are acutely aware that tech companies with resort to bad faith ad hominem attacks.”

In its original form, TTP was the Google Transparency Project and received a sizeable donation from legal rival Oracle. Could that be considered a “seed grant”? As I wrote before, I truly do not think the TTP is a front group for rivals of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, but the Campaign for Accountability steadfastly refuses to release a list of its major funders aside from what it lists on the TTP’s website. It is not a bad faith attack to question the sources of funding relied upon by organizations like the Campaign for Accountability or American Edge; it is a worthwhile cause, especially after their respective histories. As an advocacy group, the Campaign for Accountability should be much more transparent in its funding. It should be better than the organizations it calls out for astroturfing.

Aside from questions about funding, American Edge is an organization that runs ads promoting the advantages for the United States of a tech industry centred in the country. They lean heavily on a national security angle, dragging out former CIA officials and military leadership to warn that regulating American tech companies would permit Russia or China to “win the tech race”. It is not clear where the finish line is.

This fear-mongering and arguably xenophobic argument is a cynical attempt at averting any policy that interferes with the agenda of companies like Facebook. It is a zero-sum game that seeks to avoid new regulation by pointing to countries without similar rules and claiming they will have advantages. But many policy proposals are beneficial for Americans regardless of which company is providing services or where they are located. Better privacy rules, for example, would mean users would share less data with third parties and have less chance of it being exploited. A new report from the Irish Council for Civil Liberties found European internet users had their privacy and web activity exposed to advertisers about half as often as American users.

These ads also nearly make explicit the implicit advantage of an American tech industry unencumbered by stricter privacy rules or antitrust regulations: it makes its own intelligence gathering that much easier. The NSA continues to ingest unimaginable amounts of data produced by people around the world through its wiretapping arrangements. It is not supposed to access anything between Americans, but data generated by foreigners is fair game.

The NSA’s general counsel, Glenn S. Gerstell, used similar language — warning about “los[ing] the digital revolution” to Russia and China — in a 2019 editorial for the New York Times. His concern was the ongoing development of quantum computers and their ability to crack encryption standards. NIST is currently running competitions to develop new standards — standards which, the NSA says, it cannot crack nor do they have any back doors this time. I feel like I have seen this movie before.

It is unsurprising to me that big business has teamed up with influential figures to astroturf their way into minimizing oversight and regulation. These same cynical arguments are heard all the time. I am thankful the Tech Transparency Project was able to document such strong connections between Facebook and American Edge so there is a record of who, exactly, is bankrolling this ad campaign. But I wish we also knew more about the TTP and its parent organization, the Campaign for Accountability. This is an unlikeable story at every turn. At least one of these organizations should be doing a better job than it is now.

Linktree Is Integrating NFTs

Aisha Malik, TechCrunch:

Link-in-bio platform Linktree is the latest company that is looking to integrate NFTs into its service, as the company has revealed a set of new features that will allow creators to showcase their NFTs and “build a community around ownership.” The company says that with this new launch, creators will have new ways to monetize their craft and curate a digital identity. The new features were developed in partnership with NFT marketplace OpenSea.

Surely this explains why it is a billion-dollar company.