Written by Nick Heer.

Archive for August, 2022

Lyft Asks Alberta Government to Drop Commercial Licence Requirement

Michelle Bellefontaine, CBC News:

Ride-hailing company Lyft is lobbying the Alberta government in hopes the province will lift the commercial licence requirement for drivers introduced in 2016.

Drivers for ride-hailing services require a Class 4 Alberta licence. Lyft wants the province to drop that requirement and allow anyone with a Class 5 general licence to drive for them.

“Lyft believes that Alberta should join the provinces of Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan in adopting modern regulations for the passenger transportation industry,” the company said in a statement.

What a load of crap. Uber has been operating in Calgary and Edmonton since late 2016 under the existing law, which requires drivers to hold exactly the same license as a taxi driver because they do exactly the same job. While Lyft may publicly praise Ontario’s more lenient licensing requirements, it fails to note that drivers in Toronto must obtain a specific license. The city paused new licensees while existing holders complete training after a passenger in an Uber was killed because the driver dropped his cellphone.

I am not sure if I have relayed this story before, but the regulation of pirate taxi services in Alberta is an excellent example of what can be done when policymakers stick to common-sense standards in the face of political pressure.

After a brief false start in 2014, Uber launched in Calgary illegally — as it is wont to do — in October 2015. After about two months and with drivers facing several criminal charges, Uber agrees to stop operating in the city. This is their familiar playbook: operate illegally, and wait for regulators to succumb to public pressure. Indeed, there was plenty of anger and fury across the board, from the public at large to national magazines.

But the city held out. Calgary city councillors proposed a bylaw to regulate these services, each element of which Uber called “unworkable”. A single element of the legislation was adjusted to create a different administrative fee structure.

Guess what? Uber has been operating and thriving in this city for nearly six years under a legal structure they claimed would not work for its business. Drivers need to get a police background check, they need to complete specific training, they need to complete the same vehicle inspection as a taxi driver, and drivers need to hold insurance that permits use for companies like Uber. An Uber in Calgary means drivers have the same responsibility as taxi drivers, and passengers have the same expectations — as it should be.

This episode is proof that regulators can and should grow a spine. Uber and Lyft are app-based taxi businesses; their users deserve the same consumer protections as any other kind of transportation service. What Lyft is asking for is an adjustment to the provincial law but, make no mistake, Calgary’s stringent municipal laws are surely next on its list of things to weaken.

Another Free Speech Platform Cannot Bear the Sting of Mild Criticism

A little subgenre of news story I really dig is when platforms promoting themselves as some sort of unique bastion of free speech find their limit. This happens all the time because of course it does. Every platform figures out there are things unworthy of being hosted or broadcasted on its service. Substack has loudly trumpeted its free speech bonafides, permitting all sorts of nonsense — from pseudoscience health quackery to outright white nationalism — on its platform. Substack also hosts and promotes newsletters from totally normal and great writers, too.

Spencer Ackerman was one of them. Last month, he transitioned his excellent Forever Wars newsletter from Substack to Ghost after a yearlong grant expired:

I got paid, and I got Sam paid. [I bought MANY Transformers toys. Also food for my child.—Sam.] Substack, however, wouldn’t pay me what I asked for, which was their right, but was also an issue since I was splitting the grant. Not for the first time, I swallowed my pride and took the money. But once that happened, I made up my mind to stop using the platform as soon as I was no longer contractually obligated. This is why you’ve seen me make repeated references to publishing 100 editions of FOREVER WARS in the span of a year.

This is one of those totally normal posts you would expect to read to explain a change of platform. There is nothing incendiary in here; nothing that really throws Substack under the bus or burns any bridges. Ackerman points out that some of the other writers on the platform made it a little harder for him to get paying subscribers since Substack would be getting a cut and some people did not want to support that. Nothing wild, no big deal, right?

Sam Thielman, editor of Forever Wars:

In July, Spencer took this blog off Substack immediately after his contract with the newsletter company expired. He explained his decision in what can only be reasonably described as a mild post, which I edited, here. Substack responded by ending my contract to edit their other freelance writers, telling me, in writing, that they were doing so because of Spencer’s explanation. Twice.

Substack will not draw the line at white nationalists or anti-vaccine extremists or super transphobic commentary. But if one of its contract editors also edits the newsletter of a guy who left the platform, that crosses the free speech line. Again, this is an editor; his name is not really attached to Ackerman’s newsletter. And now he is out of a job because one of the people he works for decided — to repurpose the words of Substack’s Hamish McKenzie — to “serve readers above all else”.

‘Unclear Effects’ Responses and Corrections

I was particularly interested to see two responses to my exploration of ad tech company financials post-App Tracking Transparency. Unfortunately the first, from Ben Thompson in today’s Daily Update, is not visible to me because I am cheap, though I understand it to be a criticism that I did not account for exchange rates. That is fair and also, though I lack the context to say for sure what Thompson’s argument, maybe loosely agreeing with the point I am making more broadly.

The second criticism comes by way of a comprehensive Twitter thread from Eric Seufert. I have to say thank you to Seufert for rebutting my work and pointing to corrections I should make.

I want to start with a study I cited which showed negligible benefits for publishers running behaviourally-targeted ads compared to contextual ads — that is, ads based on the website or subject matter of the page. Seufert points out that the findings of that specific one differ wildly from others. I regret not looking deeper into this study and appreciate Seufert’s highlighting of its unique quality.

Seufert also disagrees with my methodology of assessing revenues by geography:

But I also think simply looking at geo-level OS penetration rates in sizing ATT’s impact is misguided given the skew of value between the platforms.

[…]

No public data exists for this but in general, iOS makes up a higher share of revenue in EU than in the US, despite holding a smaller absolute platform footprint. This is likely especially true for Snapchat which, again, historically prioritized iOS. I find this logic faulty.

That is fair; I can buy this argument. Incidentally, I find this situation sort of ironic. Android is developed by one of the world’s biggest ad businesses, but it is not the best platform for ads — or, more specifically, advertisers.

On Meta, I think the amount of blame to ascribe to ATT remains murky. The amount of noise created by TikTok’s rapid ascendancy and its ability to take younger users and, therefore, ad dollars away from Meta is an astonishing coup. Is ATT really the thing holding back the growth rate of platforms like Facebook and Instagram, or is it more likely that big advertising dollars are following users’ eyeballs?

Where I have landed after reading Seufert’s thread — and which I recommend you read, as well, as I think he makes several good arguments — is that ATT certainly has an effect, but it is not as pronounced as assumed by its ardent supports and its biggest detractors. It is making advertising a little more difficult but there are so many things happening that it is just one of several factors, most of which are more significant. My argument was certainly on a side of ATT being less relevant, while Seufert’s — and, presumably, Thompson’s — paint it as more impactful.

Where my disagreement with Seufert remains is in the ethics of monitoring user behaviour and showing them ads based on that surveillance:

This is a common argument, and it amounts to: “Users are simply ill-equipped to provide informed consent given the esoteric nature of ad tech.” I reject this. I think users generally understand the trade-offs between ads personalization and utility & behave accordingly.

Seufert illustrates this with a story from an article published in August 2020, after ATT was announced but well before it was released:

Advertising influences the user experience; people respond to ads through clicks but also through broader product engagement. An anecdote that I relay often from my time at Skype: we conducted a survey of users to gauge receptiveness to ads being introduced into the product, and most respondents believed that Skype already included ads. “It’s a free product, so it must make money by showing ads to users?”

This indicates to me how little we can really absorb and pay attention to. We are all like this. There are reasons there are guardrails in just about every market for safety, quality, and consumer protection. The data marketplace, at least in the United States, is shockingly unregulated for the risks inherent to the industry. We do not have the time to fully comprehend the very many ways in which our everyday behaviour is being tracked, nor how this information is shared and repurposed. We have better things to do.

I also think advertisers have better things to do than to hyper-target thousands of ad variants, seeking out an edge that might not even be there. John Gruber:

There’s an oft-cited adage attributed to the famed Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanamaker: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” That’s the conundrum surveillance-based advertising seemingly solves. It lets advertisers know which ads generate which business, with high accuracy. It seemingly turned an unpredictable art into a very predictable science. And now, these advertisers are finding, allocating ad dollars is regressing back towards an unpredictable art.

A key word here, I believe, is “seemingly”. The data advantages of ad tech not entirely fictional, but the dashboards featuring giant numbers and beautiful charts are giving the impression of greater precision than they truly offer. It reminds me a little of the panic over email open rates last year when it announced Mail Privacy Protection in iOS 15. Ads are surely more precise than an old-fashioned system like email, but the numbers they present are often misleading or bullshit. There is an entire industry of companies that purportedly fight fraud and inaccurate metrics, but they are part of the problem as they perpetuate the myth that advertising can be damn near perfected — if only there were enough data.

You probably do not remember many ads you see on the web or on your phone. The world of digital advertising is a world filled with ugly garbage. While the technology side of digital advertising has tried to bring it toward a science, perhaps it needs to be brought back to something more artful. Less behavioural data may encourage this.

There is a middle ground between completely untargeted ads and the hyper-targeted ones advocated for by the massive industry behind them. More artful ads, placed contextually, are a good start. I also think Facebook, of all companies, actually had a fine system in place from its earliest days: it simply asked people what they liked. Because it was a place for twenty-somethings to chat, there was a social incentive to list your favourite music, books, movies, and TV shows. Marketers could buy ads for self-selected audiences. That seems entirely okay to me — it allows for well-targeted ads without strip-mining every interaction people have across their devices, every purchase they make, and every sensor they encounter.

Two stories about Apple and advertising broke since I published my piece last week. The first was about Apple’s attempts to woo Facebook into building a subscription service — which, given a fuller contemporaneous context, is not that alarming — but it also apparently felt entitled to some of its ad revenue from boosted posts. The second is from Mark Gurman reporting that Apple internally tested ad placements in Maps, and speculating the company may increase its ad products across its platforms. Both of these paint an ugly look for Apple and, when paired with its ATT strategy — which, in isolation, seem well-intentioned — will likely raise some regulators’ ire.

Privacy must be public policy. I got some things wrong in my article and I appreciate Seufert’s corrections. I am left feeling that ATT’s effects are more significant than I first thought but still less meaningful than I am also glad to see we seem to agree on this last argument. If privacy truly is a human right, it should not be up to Apple and Meta to bicker over which company is entitled to elicit which compromises from its users.

A Short History of Apple and Facebook Digging in Their Heels

Salvador Rodriguez, Wall Street Journal:

In the years before the change, Apple suggested a series of possible arrangements that would earn the iPhone maker a slice of Facebook’s revenue, according to people who either participated in the meetings or were briefed about them. As one person recalled: Apple officials said they wanted to “build businesses together.”

One idea that was discussed: creating a subscription-based version of Facebook that would be free of ads, according to people familiar with the discussions. Because Apple collects a cut of subscription revenue for apps in its App Store, that product could have generated significant revenue for the Cupertino, Calif., giant.

[…]

Apple has discussed similar business models with many developers, according to a person familiar with the conversations.

If Apple was, indeed, planning a relentless and self-preferencing campaign against Facebook beginning in 2016, as Rodriguez reports, for a feature previewed in 2020, that would be pretty terrible. But 2016 is the time when Apple enabled subscriptions for all types of apps and launched its Search Ads initiative. Apple executives, including Phil Schiller, explained these changes in press briefings, and the company privately discussed them with developers, too.

Lauren Goode of the Verge in June 2016:

One popular app developer, who had been clued in to Apple’s App Store changes, says the new subscription offerings are “an earthquake in my world, in a good way.”

“It’s hard to emphasize how significantly this can change the viability of companies like mine and their growth trajectory,” says Itai Tsiddon, the co-founder of Lightricks, which makes top-selling apps like Facetune and Enlight.

If Apple discussed its changes with Tsiddon and, implicitly or explicitly, encouraged him to adopt subscriptions, why would it not do the same for big developers like Facebook?

Maybe this was a scheme five years in the making and explicitly targeted at Facebook. Its apps were a “persistent frustration for some Apple executives”, according to Rodriguez’s sources, because Apple did not get a cut of ad revenue. If that is the case, it confirms some of the harshest critiques of the App Store model and Apple’s entitlement to a cut of revenue. On the other hand, without context, it is unclear why Facebook’s apps so chafed Apple’s leadership. Maybe it is because they were popular, free, and huge, likely costing Apple huge amounts of money every time a new version of Instagram was released. That is partly Apple’s problem; the App Store is designed in a way that disincentivizes in-app transactions, incentivizes free apps, and does not care about file size or bandwidth use.

Here is the part of Rodriguez’s story that is not getting as much attention:

The Facebook executives who internally proposed ending the collection of third-party data argued that by ceasing its reliance on such data, the social-media giant could also reduce the company’s dependence on Apple and Google’s mobile operating systems.

Mr. Zuckerberg opted instead to leave the bulk of its data-collection practices in place. The company shut down an ad-targeting option that relied on information collected by data brokers shortly after the Cambridge Analytica scandal was reported in March 2018, but otherwise Facebook continued to rely on third-party data to target users with personalized ads.

Executives at Facebook knew, in 2018, that its reliance on third-party data was a risk, and that regulatory and platform changes could make its use very difficult. It could have switched to an entirely first-party model at the time. I assume its executives now regret that decision.

Why Was There Such a Huge Gap Between App Tracking Transparency’s Release and Its Apparent Effects?

Patrick McGee in a Twitter thread:

Basic answer: the apparent lag was one of perception.

When Apple introduced sweeping ‘do not track’ changes 16 months ago, the economy was booming. Covid had caused spending habits to experience a once-in-a-century shift away from services and towards goods.

[…]

Smaller brands weren’t necessarily hit by Apple’s policy changes later than the major platforms, but supply chain issues and a global pandemic created a “fog of war” that made it difficult to understand why, for instance, last year’s holiday sales period had disappointed.

This is the most convincing argument I have seen for the discrepancy between the booming financials of ad tech firms in the face of App Tracking Transparency which should, some analysts say, have destroyed much of their business. What it does not necessarily explain is the often better performance some of these companies saw in areas where the iPhone has a stronger market presence.

From the (likely paywalled) article McGee wrote about the shift in the Financial Times:

Obvi, an online shop for women’s health, was among the companies that were hit by an abrupt downturn last November when the cost to acquire new customers skyrocketed.

[…]

[Chief marketing officer Ashvin] Melwani said his marketing budget was around $20,000 a day, with 90 per cent going to Facebook. In the past few months Obvi has cut its budget, shifted spending to TikTok, and reoriented the company towards repeat customers.

Sure, many things are probably all happening at the same time. ATT may affect performance in North America, and the delay in its effects could be attributable to fortuitous timing. Meanwhile, performance in Europe could be faltering because of regulatory changes, all markets outside the U.S. are affected by the strong dollar, and Meta’s products are facing waning relevance worldwide among advertisers. Each company’s unique product mix is, I suppose, affecting each of them differently.

Even if all of this is true, and ATT really does make it more difficult and expensive to target ads, I stand by what I wrote:

Does ATT really “[deprive] consumers of widespread ad relevancy and advertisers and publishers of commercial opportunity”? Even if it does — which I doubt — has that commercial opportunity really existed with meaningful consumer awareness and choice? Or is this entire market illegitimate, artificially inflated by our inability to avoid becoming its subjects?

This massive and pernicious industry is facing its reckoning. Unfortunately, several small businesses are built on its illegitimate foundation, and they need an effective and ethical way out.

Custom UI Oddities, Past, Present, and Future

Niki Tonsky:

Ok thread of weird stuff found in redesigned macOS Ventura System Settings app.

This is, indeed, a thread full of a lot of really weird stuff. There are some new standard UI components in here, but there are definitely some custom elements and behaviours that, all told, make it look like a bad port of an application from a different platform.

At a live taping of the Talk Show this year at WWDC, Craig Federighi commented on the “new control types” in MacOS Ventura “that [are] not too heavy, [are] very readable and scannable, and yet clearly interactable”. But there are many examples in this thread of non-obvious controls, non-standard interactions, and things that only make sense if you know to hover a pointer over them.

That means this Settings app fits with Apple’s recent obsession with buried controls and cross-platform consistency, even when it may not make sense, but it makes me worried for all the times I will need to use the Settings app. I do not change systemwide preferences very often so, when I do, I want everything to smack me in the face with its obviousness.

Jeff Johnson on the new and similarly nonstandard Share popover:

If I want to navigate the menu with the keyboard, I need to enable full keyboard navigation in the Keyboard pane of System Settings. This setting is disabled by default.

And then I can navigate the menu… but not with the arrow keys! I need to use the tab key to go down the menu, shift-tab to go up the menu. Correspondingly, the menu items no longer get selected, as on Monterey and earlier, but instead have a focus ring.

Peter Böttges on Twitter (via Michael Tsai):

Keyboard support was also removed from Menubar controls like Sound/Vol. and Wi-Fi with the overhaul in Big Sur.

And most of the new UI has zero support for Apple Script automation, making it inaccessible to those having to rely on it.

That’s the wrong direction to take macOS to.

Custom UI elements are a familiar presence in MacOS. Remember the many window themes in Mac OS X Tiger? There were standard windows with a title bar, “unified” windows that merged the title bar and toolbar, bizarre pill-shaped buttons that were only present in Mail, applications that sported a brushed metal effect, and slightly darker windows in Apple’s pro application suites. Heck, iTunes was full of custom controls from its earliest incarnations, and many third-party developers have their own take on what their brand of Mac application ought to look like.

I have no problem with non-standard controls in principle. But I do have a problem with non-standard behaviours. I know Ventura is still being finished, but it is worrying to see things like keyboard navigation being, maybe, tacked on toward the end of the process. There is the very real possibility it may not materialize, too; I remember similar problems with the search field in the first Catalyst version of Maps that shipped with Big Sur.

But one hopes Apple learns from its missteps and corrects for them the next time it tries something similar. What it feels like with the changes to Settings, the Share popover, Control Centre, and the ubiquitous back button in Catalyst apps is a redo of a flawed approach. The more concerning thing this time around, for me, is that it is part of a pattern of questionable choices introduced and never re-evaluated because the next version of MacOS will be shown off just ten months from now.

‘Unclear Effects’ Postscript

I have this problem where, exactly two hours after pressing the “publish” button, I will think of one more thing I should have written. It does not matter how long I sit on a draft; it happens every time. But you have to stop somewhere.

In this case, though, I really want to add one more thing to the piece I wrote about the unclear effects of App Tracking Transparency from earlier today:

Is it possible the social media giants from California are facing waning relevance? Is ATT perhaps a useful scapegoat with questionable effect? […]

Meta said, quarter after quarter following ATT’s release, that its ability to make money from iPhone users would be crushed, even as it raked in higher ad sales. Finally, earlier this year, it posted some disappointing figures more reflective of inflation and a strong U.S. dollar. But it still blamed Apple for some of that loss.

It reminds me of one of those homeopathic remedies that promises relief from cold and flu symptoms after three to five days, which you may recognize is about the length of time most people notice cold and flu symptoms. Maybe you could blame Meta’s woes on a combination of sputtering user growth, trend-chasing platform updates, the rising threat of TikTok, geopolitical problems, and economic changes. Or, perhaps, it is a permissions prompt that, miraculously, has only appeared recently and to a greater extent in regions where Android is more popular.

Ad Tech Revenue Statements Indicate Unclear Effects of App Tracking Transparency

App Tracking Transparency (hereafter, “ATT”) is in the news again because many advertising-supported companies have reported a particularly bad earnings quarter attributable, many of them have said, to several factors, perhaps best summarized by Mobile Dev Memo’s Eric Seufert:

It’s impractical, if not impossible, to try to tease out the individual burden of any of these dynamics on mobile advertising performance, generally. And it’s also largely beside the point: it is the “perfect storm” combination of these three conditions that compounds to such painful detriment to advertising performance.

This is perhaps true, but it has not stopped Seufert and others from calling out ATT as a key factor. Seufert published the third instalment of his series about how unfair ATT is earlier this month after news broke of new App Store ad formats, and it is, as is typical, an excoriation of the Apple-imposed question of whether users want to be tracked by third-party services:

Note that Apple’s ad network utilizes app install and in-app purchase data, to which Apple has exclusive first-party access under the restrictions of ATT, to target ads to users with its ad network. It’s worth underscoring that, with ATT, the scope and substance of consumer data utilized to target ads remains unchanged, except that only Apple has access to it. To be fair: Apple does employ privacy controls with its own ad network that are superior to the pre-ATT status quo. But my primary contention with ATT is that it does not facilitate real consumer choice and that it deprives consumers of widespread ad relevancy and advertisers and publishers of commercial opportunity.

Those are actually three “primary” concerns, and I think it is worth responding to them. But first, I think we should ask whether ATT really is cratering mobile advertising in the way both its critics and its proponents seem to believe. That includes me, by the way. I have previously linked to stories about the apparently enormous impact ATT has had on big ad companies like Alphabet, Meta, and Snap. But I thought it would be worth a deeper look.


As Seufert says, it is very difficult to figure out what specific effect ATT has because there are so many factors involved. But it is fair to think that, if it is affecting publishers’ revenue as Seufert says, it should also be affecting advertisers’ revenue too. And, while these companies do not separate revenue by platform, they do offer geographic breakdowns. North America is the only region where the iPhone is more popular than Android; elsewhere, the reverse is true, and often overwhelmingly. We also know ATT was rolled out at the end of April 2021. With time given for users to update, that means we should begin seeing North American revenue beginning to falter in the third calendar quarter of 2021 compared to the rest of the world.

The actual figures tell a much murkier story. I do not think it is fair to suggest ATT does nothing, but its effect does not seem as pronounced as either its biggest supporters or its biggest naysayers suggest.

Snap, for example, is a company that has no major revenue stream outside of ad placements in its smartphone apps. But in Q3 2021, a full quarter after ATT’s public debut, Snap posted year-over-year revenue growth of 57% overall. In North America, it reported 60% growth — higher than in any other region.

The following quarters all show overall revenue gains in North America just one percentage point below the company’s total growth. It is a pattern that more closely mimics the number of daily active users. Snap has only posted modest, single-digit year-over-year gains in North American users, but decent double-digit growth elsewhere. Meanwhile, its growth in the average revenue per user has been stronger in North America since ATT’s debut than anywhere else.

If ATT were so significantly kneecapping revenue, I would think we would see a pronounced skew against North America compared to elsewhere. But that is not the case. Revenue in North America is only slightly off compared to the company total, and it is increasing how much it earns per North American user compared to the rest of the world.

What about Alphabet? It has actually posted year-over-year revenue gains in the United States — one of few countries where iOS is dominant — higher than those in Africa, Asia, or Europe in its first and second quarters this year. In fairness, its gains were much stronger in “Other Americas”, which comprises Mexico, southward, plus Canada.

Meta’s business is the one everyone appears to be watching because two quarters this year have been rough. In its most recent, it reported its first ever year-over-year revenue decline, which dropped by about a billion dollars in Europe and about $600 million in the U.S. and Canada. That is alarming for the company, to be sure, but it still does not track with ATT causality for two reasons:

  • iOS is far more popular in the U.S. and Canada than it is in Europe, but Meta incurred a greater revenue decline — in absolute terms and, especially, in percentage terms — in Europe.

  • Meta was still posting year-over-year gains in both those regions until this most recent quarter, even though ATT rolled out over a year ago.

Those are all big, well-known companies. What about pure advertising businesses? Surprisingly few are publicly traded. Even so, I pulled the earnings from a few popular programmatic display ad providers. Magnite, for example, calls itself the “world’s largest independent sell-side ad platform”. In its most recent quarter, the proportion of revenue it derived from the U.S. increased year-over-year compared to the rest of the world. The most recent investor report from Criteo, a major provider of retargeted ads, showed an overall decline year-over-year, but the Americas performed far better than African, Asian, or European markets.

Perhaps the most favourable evidence for ATT’s effects lies in the earnings reports from Publicis Groupe, which has acquired dozens of name-brand agencies — like Leo Burnett and Saatchi & Saatchi — and also runs a digital ad platform. It is such a multifaceted business that it is hard to see where the effects of ATT may come into play. In the first half of 2022, its “organic” growth in North America was the lowest of any region. But it ranked among the middle in total growth over 2021, posting higher gains than Asia or Europe. In the same press release, Publicis also specifically calls out the performance of Epsilon, its internal data brokerage service, as a reason for its U.S. growth.

Though I did not examine every available earnings report, I am not cherry picking. I looked through the list of companies on Martech Map, checked to see if they were significant enough and had investor information, and then looked for geographic breakdowns. It is possible I have my assumptions all wrong, too; please let me know if you believe that is the case. I am not arguing this is a perfect analogue, only that it paints a murkier picture of ATT’s apparent financial effects on the ad tech industry.


I think Seufert’s criticisms of ATT have been among the most cogent and thoughtful, and I do not intend for this to be a full article about him, specifically. But he does articulate some of the more common problems I see being raised with ATT. There are legal questions which are being investigated by British and German authorities about Apple’s simultaneous offering of “personalized” App Store ads; I will focus only on the moral questions on which I think can fairly comment.

There is a fairly significant ethical problem out of the gate: there are those who believe highly-targeted advertisements are a fair trade-off because they offer businesses a more accurate means of finding their customers, and the behavioural data collected from all of us is valuable only in the aggregate. That is, as I understand it, the view of analysts like Seufert, Benedict Evans, and Ben Thompson. Frequent readers will not be surprised to know I disagree with this premise. Regardless of how many user agreements we sign and privacy policies we read, we cannot know the full extent of the data economy. Personal information about us is being collected, shared, combined, and repackaged. It may only be profitable in aggregate, but it is useful with finer granularity, so it is unsurprising that it is indefinitely warehoused in detail. You can prove this to yourself by viewing the browsing history collected by Facebook and Google, or requesting a copy of your personal data from major brokers. Some make that process very easy: you can often complete a form on the company’s website. Others require you to send an email with the personal identifiers you would like to obtain a records check on, like your name, email addresses, phone number, and device IDs. Some will display user data to those who ask anywhere in the U.S. or worldwide, while others will only comply with requests from California or Vermont, or wherever laws require. You may find some companies you have never heard of have a lot of information about you, often a mix of scraped public sources and data shared or collected in private deals.

What you will likely find after completing several of these requests, especially if you live in the U.S., is how much information about you is being held by by these brokers and marketing companies. Even though Canadian privacy laws give me some cover from the worst abuses, I have still found brokers that held my full name, my full street address, and other personal identifiers. These attributes are not often not relevant to targeted advertising — what does it matter what my apartment number is? Why are brokers not dividing the world into general areas in the style of What Three Words? — but they hold it all because it is cheap enough to do so, even at scale. All so, the story goes, a neighbourhood restaurant can precisely advertise a special offer when it is close to my partner’s birthday.

In a passionate defence of targeted ads, Seufert asked, rhetorically, “what happens when ads aren’t personalized?”, answering “digital ads resemble TV ads: jarring distractions from core content experience. Non-personalized is another way of saying irrelevant, or at best, randomly relevant.”

For what it is worth, a relevant ad has never serendipitously graced my screen, even before I took steps to avoid targeted advertising. My friends and family barely see well-targeted ads, either. Most often, they see the same ad — on every other webpage and in every app they use — for an online store they visited once, begging them to return, sometimes in French when their device is set to an English language setting. What is the solution to this — more data collection? That is absurd. Even at their absolute best, targeted ads are seen by viewers as creepy. People do not want irrelevant ads, but they do not want to feel followed or harassed either. Targeted advertising enables the latter. Even if they were a significant payoff for publishers — which there is not — does it make sense to build the internet’s economy on the backs of a few hundred brokers none of us have heard of, trading and merging our personal information in the hope of generating a slightly better click-through rate?

Earlier, I quoted Seufert:

But my primary contention with ATT is that it does not facilitate real consumer choice and that it deprives consumers of widespread ad relevancy and advertisers and publishers of commercial opportunity.

ATT may not be worded fairly — though Seufert’s proposed solution is similarly vague and unhelpful — but he is right to argue it does not offer real choice, though probably not in the way he intends. Users can still be tracked and apps from well-known developers were found to ignore opt-outs.

Then there is the much bigger question of whether people should even be able to opt into such widespread tracking. We simply cannot be informed consumers in every aspect of our lives, and we cannot foresee how this information will be used and abused in the full extent of time. It sounds boring, but what is so wrong with requiring data minimization at every turn, permitting only the most relevant personal data to be collected, and restricting the ability for this information to be shared or combined?

Does ATT really “[deprive] consumers of widespread ad relevancy and advertisers and publishers of commercial opportunity”? Even if it does — which I doubt — has that commercial opportunity really existed with meaningful consumer awareness and choice? Or is this entire market illegitimate, artificially inflated by our inability to avoid becoming its subjects?

I wonder how much of ad tech’s woes is really ascribable to ATT, and how much is the fault of the myriad other problems it is running into: currency fluctuations, regulation, pandemic effects, and changes in user behaviour all come to mind.

Cal Newport, the New Yorker:

[…] TikTok is estimated to have a billion active monthly users, a number it achieved in a breathtakingly short time, and according to some reports it boasts an average session length of 10.85 minutes, which, if true, would be far longer than that of any other major social-media app. Meanwhile, Facebook’s parent company recently lost more than two hundred and thirty billion dollars in market capitalization in a single day after the company announced that user growth had stalled. Analysts identified TikTok as an important factor in this slowdown.

Is it possible the social media giants from California are facing waning relevance? Is ATT perhaps a useful scapegoat with questionable effect? I am not sure it is possible to say from the outside looking in, but I am also not sure we can draw any conclusions from one or two quarters this year, over a year after ATT was launched to the public.


In theory, ATT is a very good option for users. Its biggest problem is that the company which makes it also has an advertising division, and it appears to have engaged in some quiet self-preferencing behaviours. Legal questions aside, it is disappointing to see such an obvious user benefit so easily undermined. These App Store ads give ATT’s critics a clear conflict of interest to point to, look tacky, and create an unpleasant experience. ATT’s reliance on a very specific definition of “tracking” that allows Apple to segment users based on what they read in News and what they buy in third-party apps is far more permissive than I think it ought to be for a company that so loudly trumpets its privacy bonafides. But advertising that relies on first-party data can accurately be described as better for privacy than those based on the third-party data economy. Whether it is fair for Apple to treat itself, as the platform creator, as the root-level first-party with an infinitely bigger observation window is another question. I do not think it should.

Conflicts like these are one of many reasons why privacy rights should be established by regulators, not individual companies. Privacy must not be a luxury good, or something you opt into, and it should not be a radical position to say so. We all value different degrees of privacy, but it should not be possible for businesses to be built on whether we have rights at all. The digital economy should not be built on such rickety and obviously flawed foundations.

Which New iOS and MacOS Features Do People Actually Use?

Adam Engst, TidBits:

However, as you’ll see, the respondents may be outliers only in degree, not direction. The most notable finding is that most of them don’t use most of the features listed. Only four features — Live Text, Shortcuts, Hide My Email, and Memories in Photos — received more votes saying they were Occasionally or Frequently used than Never used. (A fifth feature, App Privacy Report, was close, with only 57 more people on the Never side.) It seems probable that those responding to the survey were more likely than the average Apple user to use these features, suggesting that a broader survey would have shown even lower usage levels.

Via Michael Tsai, who writes:

I use Live Text frequently and Shortcuts and translation occasionally. Often, translation doesn’t support support the language that I need so I end up going to Google Translate.

It is a TidBits survey covering twenty new features in MacOS and iOS — both now mature platforms — so I am not surprised many of its respondents said they “never” use most of these features. Still, even as a longtime user of both operating systems, I find myself discovering new and new-to-me capabilities somewhat often.

Live Text, in particular, has made all the difference in the world for me. I cannot remember the last time I used it on iOS with the Camera app, but I am often dealing with images of text in my Mac workflow. Being able to select and copy text out of screenshots or graphics has been transformative.

The other features here are a mixed bag. I have iCloud Private Relay switched on for many of my devices, and I very occasionally use Hide My Email. If I want a throwaway address, I will often use a dedicated provider instead. I have not had a set of devices compatible with Universal Control until recently but it impressed me. Focus still requires too much setup for my liking, but I have modes for working and sleeping, and both are fine.

I mentioned “discovering” features. One reason for this, I think, is because Apple often mentions features without explaining or demonstrating them. Maybe I am just busier now or my brain is getting mushier with age, but I find I often have to look through Apple’s marketing pages to try to make sense of anything that has been announced. Minor software versions also quietly carry unannounced new features, too. When Visual Lookup was released in Canada with a software update earlier this year, it was not mentioned in the release notes.

The Roomba Privacy Angle

Ron Knox, in response to Amazon’s acquisition of iRobot, makers of the Roomba:

This is also a straight-up data acquisition. The most advanced versions of Roomba collect information about your house as they clean.

It knows where you keep your furniture, the size of each room and so on. It’s a vacuum and a mapping device.

I think this thread is overblown, but it is an interesting angle I have been thinking about this weekend.

Benedict Evans:

The general point that perplexes me about threads like this is the idea that anyone wants to know trivial and random details about your life – that this has any economic value. “Amazon will know where your furniture is!” No, it won’t, but why on Earth would it care?

Rodrigo Ghedin:

Perhaps the co-founder and current CEO of iRobot could help us understand? From a 2017 Reuters interview of Colin Angle:

There’s an entire ecosystem of things and services that the smart home can deliver once you have a rich map of the home that the user has allowed to be shared.

At the time, iRobot had just made its Roomba robots compatible with Amazon’s Alexa. In the interview, Angle floated the possibility of sharing home maps with the three technology giants — Amazon, Apple, and Google —, a service that would be free of charge.

Good find from Ghedin. This Reuters story is fascinating because of its lingering effect. If you search the web for "colin angle" roomba privacy, you will find dozens of stories where Angle and iRobot’s privacy team distance themselves from its implications. The Reuters story was revised — according to metadata on the page — about four days after it was published and now carries this note at the top:

This July 24 story corrects paragraph 6 to read “share maps for free with customer consent” instead of “sell maps”.

Nevertheless, between July 24 and 28 2017, a rush of stories was published exploring the ramifications of a camera-equipped robot mapping out your house.

Maggie Astor, New York Times:

But the data, if shared, could also be a windfall for marketers, and the implications are easy to imagine. No armchair in your living room? You might see ads for armchairs next time you open Facebook. Did your Roomba detect signs of a baby? Advertisers might target you accordingly.

At the time, iRobot’s public relations people strenuously denied this will happen. I still think it is an unlikely possibility and an overreaction. But as businesses like Amazon try to blanket homes in microphones and cameras while selling advertisements and goods with basically no firewall between the two, is it any wonder imaginations are running wild? Amazon could assuage concerns by distancing its many businesses — which is completely counter to its goals, I know.

Products’ Useful Lifespans Should Be Longer Than Their Batteries

Geoffrey Fowler, Washington Post:

But the $179 AirPods, Apple’s most successful new product in years, show longevity still isn’t a paramount concern. If you show up at an Apple Store with dead AirPod batteries, they’ll only sell you new ones. (Apple wouldn’t comment when I asked why.)

This is not exactly true. Apple offers what it calls “battery service” where it replaces affected AirPods and cases for $49 each, which is something I learned the last time Fowler wrote about this issue three years ago. The same policy is in place for Apple’s other models of AirPods, including the $549 AirPods Max model for which it charges $79 for battery service.

An embedded, irreplaceable battery makes a lot of sense in many products. It means devoting less space to connectors and hatches, and does not require designers to work around available battery formats. For the length of time the batteries are usable, it can make for much better products. People clearly agree — AirPods are so good that many people who never spent more than $20 or $30 on headphones before are spending hundreds of dollars on a set. But it limits a product’s lifespan to its sole consumable part, which seems silly if you think about it.

This issue is not Apple’s alone, but I think AirPods are a good place to start. After three years of use, my second-generation model is starting to need more frequent charging. It is time to replace it. But, though I enjoy having it in my life, I am struggling with the implications of going through products worth hundreds of dollars — especially given a likely better fit of the Pro model for my ears — every few years, especially since the hundred-dollar wired earbuds I bought a couple years before my AirPods are still working great.

It sure seems as though the things I like about AirPods may not be possible if the batteries were more easily swappable, but it is hard to know for sure. Would they last nearly as long? Could they be so compact? Is it possible to design AirPods around easily-obtainable batteries? I wish Apple would prioritize that sort of thing, as it does seem irresponsible to sell such a disposable product.

I like Fowler’s idea:

So let’s revive Neistat’s radical act of transparency and demand to know when gadgets are designed to die. If companies won’t come clean on their own, let’s require a label right there on the shelf that lists the battery recharge count and how much it costs to replace the battery. The Federal Trade Commission already has the power to require other labels on products — why not for batteries?

(The Neistat here is actually referring to two Neistats — Casey and Van — who vandalized iPod posters in 2003 in an attempt to notify people of its sealed battery.)

Would people make different choices if they knew how long they can expect the battery to last and how much it will cost to replace? I am not sure. Apple publishes a list of expected cycle counts for its Macs — one thousand charge cycles for every model for the past twelve years, in case you are wondering — but does not do the same for its other products (Update: I overlooked this page on Apple’s website where it says users can expect a thousand charge cycles from iPad and Apple Watch batteries, and just five hundred cycles from iPhone batteries. Thanks to Jason for the correction.).

I stand by the headline I gave this post: a product’s useful lifespan should exceed its most consumable component. When the battery in my AirPods finally dies, for real, all of the audio technology, the chips, and the radios will still be fully functional. It seems bizarre that all those components are at the mercy of a couple of cheap glued-in batteries. We should expect better.

FEC Draft Green Lights Gmail Plan for More Political Spam

Mack DeGeurin, Gizmodo:

On Wednesday, the Federal Election Commission released a draft answer in favor of a proposed Google program that would keep Republicans’ campaign email blasts out of users’ spam folders. The carveout, first proposed by Google earlier this year under pressure from whiney Republican lawmakers, stands out as yet another example of Big Tech companies catering to conservatives to avoid the perception of conservative bias.

Those who have written to the FEC overwhelmingly do not want Google to change its spam processing rules to exclude political emails. Check out any batch of responses and you will see the same patterns: people are comfortable allowing Google to figure out what is spam and what is not, and see no need to carve out a special all-clear route for emails from political parties.

In a way, there is consistency in the FEC’s draft position: U.S. politicians are already exempt from most rules governing unsolicited phone calls and texts. They do not have to respect the Do Not Call list. It is sort of fitting for them to be excluded from spam filters, too, though it is maddening. They have extraordinary reach and individuals have little control.

The Women Calling Out Apple’s Handling of Misconduct Claims

Patrick McGee, Financial Times:

In 2018, CEO Tim Cook spoke of the company’s commitment to “helping more women assume leadership roles across the tech sector and beyond”, launching an initiative to train and mentor female entrepreneurs building apps. In the company’s internal 31-page onboarding document called “Apple Start”, the iPhone maker holds itself to a high standard, telling new employees about the “Apple difference”, how it fosters teamwork and innovation, and “does things differently”.

Yet the stories shared by women at Apple indicate the world’s largest company is falling short in building the culture it aspires to. The accounts collected by the FT paint a portrait of a People team that acts less like a safe place for employees to go with complaints and more like a risk mitigation unit that protects bad managers. In six cases, women said speaking up had cast them as bad team members and resulted in their departure. In three instances, Apple offered multiple months of salary in exchange for not disparaging the company or being held liable.

I know it was in the context of ads, but I think I will be referring to Michael Tsai’s line — “core values are what you do on an ongoing basis” — for years to come.

Unplugged Responds, Kind Of

Last week, before publishing my story about Unplugged, I sent the company a series of questions about its relationship with Glenn Greenwald, its curiously similar product to the Liberty Ghost phone, and a few other related matters. As mentioned, I had not heard back from the company when I published the article, but I promised an update if I got a response.

Here is what Unplugged told me today:

Unplugged is engaging with a variety of thought leaders and communities that all share our core values for reclaiming privacy. We had invited Glenn to be our guest at DEF CON to share his views on privacy with the audience. As it seems, he’s not going to come.

Our phone is NOT manufactured in China. Check our website FAQ.

I followed up by asking whether Unplugged waited for a response from Greenwald before telling journalists he would be at the conference on the company’s behalf and promising meetings with him. I also asked the company to, again, clarify its relationship with Liberty Blockchain. I have not heard back.

The FAQ page on Unplugged’s website does say its phones are manufactured in Vietnam, Taiwan, and Indonesia. That seems plausible to me, though I question why a couple of small companies would need to source production from three different countries.

If you are wondering how I could have missed such an obvious question and answer, you are not alone; I was equally incredulous. It turns out Unplugged’s website is built in Wix and, while extremely janky under the hood, Wix encloses plenty of metadata in its HTML and JSON source. Here is the relevant section, prettified for readability and with a chunk of irrelevant elements removed:

{
"id":"7e5e2a98-f7ab-4d9e-9d03-f5834e35d48b",
"question":"Where the UP Phone is manufactured?",
"answer":{
    "blocks":[{
        "key":"atf0a",
        "text":"Our factories are located in Vietnam, Taiwan and Indonesia",
        […]
        "slug":"where-the-up-phone",
        "shareLink":"https://www.unplugged.com//s/f/where-the-up-phone",
        "createdDate":"2022-07-28T19:39:50.568208Z",
        "updatedDate":"2022-07-28T19:40:02.388140Z"
    }]
}

This specific question and answer was inserted into the site’s FAQ on July 28 at about 7:39 PM UTC+0, which is about 1:39 PM on July 28 in my time zone. I sent questions to Unplugged, including clarification about where its phones are manufactured, about twenty hours before they updated the page with this answer.

Interestingly, while there are factories in all three countries Unplugged says makes its smartphone, many of them are in the names of Chinese companies like Oppo and ZTE. If someone is paranoid about the privacy implications of their smartphone’s manufacturing location, surely that also matters. Unplugged has not responded to questions about its manufacturing partners.

Update: One of the questions I sent Unplugged was:

Did Greenwald agree to attend DEF CON with your company before invitations to set up meeting times with Greenwald were sent to journalists?

On August 4, the company responded:

Unplugged is a privacy-first company, and as such we do not disclose information about one’s personal affairs. What we will say is our team only sends accurate information in pitches to reporters.

Greenwald told me “specific dates about when I was supposedly available to meet with journalists about this phone” were not agreed to and he did not sign any contract or agree to speak about this phone. The PR representative who sent the invitations refused to comment. Someone is being less than forthcoming and, based on the responses I have received from all parties, I do not think we will learn what really happened with this bizarre situation.

Also from Unplugged:

Liberty are indeed our partners. They sell a special edition of our phone with a couple of tweaks which are unique for their devices (such as branded casing, wallpaper and some pre-installed apps).

Unplugged did not elaborate on whether there were other connections between the companies.

A ‘Columbo’ Moment

Anna Merlan, Vice:

On cross-examination, though, things got far stickier for [Alex] Jones, especially when plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Bankston informed him that 12 days ago, Jones’ attorneys accidentally sent him an entire digital copy of Jones’ cellphone, which they then failed to declare as privileged. That means Bankston has wide latitude to ask Jones about anything he found on the phone that conflicts with things Jones has said in his testimony.

This is personal to me. For lots of very boring reasons, Jones has unfortunately been a lurking figure in the back of my brain for about twenty years. The impact he has had on my life is certainly a tiny fraction of the degree to which his broadcasts have played a role in harming the lives of those connected to the mass murder at Sandy Hook. Still, it was immensely satisfying to watch the moment Bankston told him what he obtained.

Update: Parker Molloy:

I am asking people in media to understand that their editorial decisions, from who gets invited to appear on talk shows to what topics we actually hear about in the news (and how often), are not value-neutral. Want to invite the next Tomi Lahren or Alex Jones to appear on your show? Fine. But just know that you’re not “exposing” their bad ideas or “showing the public who they really are;” you’re giving them an opportunity, which they will be lucky to have (even if they pretend to be upset about it, as Jones did about his Megyn Kelly interview.

In short: make good choices.

Commentators are pointing to this factor as among the biggest problems with a new documentary about Jones.

Core Values

Sometimes, a single sentence is all you need.

Michael Tsai, in a collection of links about the new ad formats in the App Store:

Your core values are what you do on an ongoing basis, not the talking points that you broadcast or what you did 20 years ago under different leadership.

Cogent. No notes.

There is also a discussion in Tsai’s comments about iAd, Apple’s first attempt to create an iOS ad network under Steve Jobs’ leadership. Among many differences — iAd originally had million-dollar minimum buys — one thing iAd got right was its multiparty benefit. Advertisers got their product or service in front of people, Apple got its cut, and developers of the apps in which the ads were placed got paid. And plenty of apps already included ads, so an iAd was not surprising to users.

App Store search ads are somewhat beneficial to developers who can get their apps in front of users. But they are arguably more rewarding for Apple: the cmopany gets paid for every tap from an interested user, and a cut of every paid app download and in-app purchase. iAd felt like a typical ad network that, at first, only had high-end buyers; App Store ads feel more like key money.

Rumble’s Antitrust Lawsuit Against Google Will Proceed to Discovery

In January last year, the Canadian video hosting platform Rumble sued Google (PDF) alleging violations of antitrust law. Google obviously attempted to get the lawsuit dismissed but the judge denied that request (PDF).

Dan Frieth, Reclaim the Net:

Rumble is one of YouTube’s most significant competitors. Founded in 2013, it has grown rapidly over the past few years because it upholds free speech, while YouTube has been heavily censoring content, positioning itself as the arbiter of truth while banning, deleting, and demonetizing videos that go against certain narratives.

As with so many other “free speech” alternatives to mainstream social networks, this claim is untrue. Rumble prohibits videos that are “grossly offensive to the online community, including but not limited to, racism, anti-semitism and hatred”, videos that are supportive of either Antifa or the KKK — apparently equals in the eyes of whomever wrote the site’s terms and conditions — and videos that could harm others’ reputation. Rumble also prohibits users from linking to websites that would violate these terms.

But go on:

By filing the lawsuit, Rumble hoped that there will be free and fair competition so that people can find videos uploaded on YouTube’s competitors. The suit alleges that Google uses its dominance in search and manipulates its algorithms to prevent users from finding videos on YouTube’s competitors.

The WSJ once said its reporters tested how the system works to discover that, in an overwhelming majority of cases, highly similar versions of videos ranked better if they appeared on YouTube.

Regardless of whining about moderation on platforms like YouTube and Facebook — moderation that, as acknowledged by many including Rumble itself, has sowed the seeds of potential competitors — this lawsuit is actually a little interesting. Rumble’s argument is a well-worn one: its links appear too far down on Google’s search results page, even when the search query is highly relevant to a Rumble page.

Google’s search rankings are based on a couple hundred signals, but one of the best-known is the number of external websites linking to a particular domain. The quality and relevance of those linking websites also matter. Google does not see it as particularly meaningful if a spammy WordPress site that republishes articles from the Verge has a link back to this domain, for example, but it does see a link back from the Verge itself as a positive signal.

I ran Rumble’s domain through the free trial of a few well-known SEO utilities, including Semrush and SerpStat. They indicated Rumble is most often linked to by websites like Patriots.win — the Reddit clone created after /r/the_donald was shuttered for frequent and widespread abuse — and conspiracy theory sites like Rense.com. (That is a link to the Rational Wiki article about Rense; I would not want to subject you, reader, to the site itself.) These are not high-quality links to a website that is attempting to compete with YouTube, the world’s second most popular domain.

With that kind of information, it is easy to see why Rumble videos are often outranked by YouTube ones. YouTube has billions of external individual links pointed at it; SerpStat says Rumble has about four million, and they are frequently from bad sources. Why would Google point people toward a place often cited by cranks and charlatans, and rarely by authoritative sources? But it is hard to know how much this effect is attributable to so-called “organic” signals, and how much can be ascribed to Google’s alleged self-preferencing.

I do not expect many revelations in this trial; many of those have been revealed through yet-unproven accusations in other cases. But I am curious to see if Google artificially juices the position of its own products as has been repeatedly been alleged of doing. Even if Google is prioritizing its own products, Rumble must also argue it is somehow entitled to a higher search results ranking, even though it has issued several press releases touting its massive popularity.

The Many Capabilities of Proxy Icons

Mitchell Clark, the Verge:

But then I learned that quite a few apps, including many of the built-in ones, have a quick shortcut to get at the file you’re viewing. Using this shortcut (which is officially called the proxy icon), you can easily do things like upload a PDF you have open in Preview to Google Drive without having to go looking for the file in Finder.

[…]

To be clear, this is not a new feature of the latest macOS beta or anything. I’m pretty sure I learned about it when someone mentioned it in the context of features that have been around so long that young whippersnappers like me have never even heard of them. So, yes, I am a bit late to the party here. But now that I finally learned about it, I use it all the time.

Articles like these were certainly written while proxy icons were always visible in MacOS application windows — Clark links to a 2007 TUAW piece, now at Engadget. But all instruction of how this icon works must now begin by telling users they first can hover over the title of the document to reveal a now-hidden icon, instead of a user’s curiosity being piqued by the always-visible icon.

The proxy icon should not be treated as a secret, hidden feature. It is so much more dignified and capable than that.