Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Om Malik Re-Embraces Flickr

Om Malik:

During the early days of Flickr, I didn’t take photos. It was a story. When Yahoo bought the company, I broke the story on my blog. It made news because the news was on a blog. Go figure. I made a mistake by hotlinking Caterina Fake’s photo. She Goatse-d me. I apologized. A friendship blossomed. Stewart Butterfield, the other Flickr co-founder, and the master of a pivot, now is the head honcho at Slack, where I am a nano-investor.

The world has moved on, but it wasn’t till this month, I started to appreciate the foresight and the specialness of Flickr, and it’s a foundational role in the history of the modern web. I am finding joy in it — and hopefully the new owner, SmugMug will be able to find ways to energize the community around it. They could start by bundling it with SmugMug Pro.

It’s shocking just how much Flickr missed out on the smartphone photo boom. Nobody used Flickr like they use Instagram or even Twitter for sharing photos now, and Yahoo just sort of let it languish. But maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe Flickr can be a fantastic smaller platform. There’s no reason it needs to compete with the biggest players so long as it can attract a great community.

I let my Flickr Pro membership lapse years ago because I wasn’t taking photos as much, so I didn’t want to pay for a photo sharing website. Over the past couple of years, I’ve been much more active with my camera, and Malik’s post has made me think harder about whether I want to buy Pro again. I still haven’t made my mind up, but it could be worth a year’s experiment to see if I really will use Flickr again.

Ad Buyers Shrug at YouTube’s Child Exploitation Crisis

Shareen Pathak And Jack Marshall, Digiday:

As a number of major brands, including Disney, Nestle, McDonald’s, AT&T and Epic Games, are pulling their ads from YouTube due to its latest brand-safety “crisis,” media buyers are largely reacting with a collective shrug.

In a poll conducted by Digiday Research on Thursday, Feb. 21, only 14 percent of 100 buyers said they expect the crisis to have any impact on long-term spending on the platform. Nearly a third of buyers said they expect any cutbacks they make to be temporary. Meanwhile, 37 percent of respondents said the crisis would not impact their advertising plans for the platform.

[…]

But for agency buyers, gathered in Nashville this week for the Digiday Media Buying Summit, this is just the latest in a long line of supposed brand-safety crises that won’t really amount to much other than a temporary pause. “It’ll never happen [that this hurts anyone]. YouTube is such a brand-unsafe environment. But it works. They give you the views, they give you the conversions,” said one C-level exec at a major agency.

This will remain a problem as long as advertising is served programmatically on under-moderated monopolistic platforms, or as long as ad buyers don’t take it seriously.

Some Apps Using Facebook’s SDK Are Sending Sensitive User Data to Facebook

Sam Schechner, Wall Street Journal (like all WSJ articles, this is paywalled, but a Twitter link is a ladder over the wall):

Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, which operate the two dominant app stores, don’t require apps to disclose all the partners with whom data is shared. Users can decide not to grant permission for an app to access certain types of information, such as their contacts or locations. But these permissions generally don’t apply to the information users supply directly to apps, which is sometimes the most personal.

In the Journal’s testing, Instant Heart Rate: HR Monitor, the most popular heart-rate app on Apple’s iOS, made by California-based Azumio Inc., sent a user’s heart rate to Facebook immediately after it was recorded.

Flo Health Inc.’s Flo Period & Ovulation Tracker, which claims 25 million active users, told Facebook when a user was having her period or informed the app of an intention to get pregnant, the tests showed.

Real-estate app Realtor.com, owned by Move Inc., a subsidiary of Wall Street Journal parent News Corp , sent the social network the location and price of listings that a user viewed, noting which ones were marked as favorites, the tests showed.

Reckless data sharing by app developers is a recurring concern. Two years ago, Will Strafach found that the AccuWeather app was providing users’ location data to Reveal Mobile. Last year, reporters at the New York Times found that many apps were still selling users’ locations to unscrupulous analytics and adtech firms. At the time, I wrote:

App developers should, at the very least, be required to be completely forthright in their permissions request dialogs. If a developer is scooping and selling user data, they should be able to defend that practice to users in language that they can understand; if they cannot, then perhaps that’s a practice they should cease.

At an absolute minimum, users should know which companies their data may be shared with and why, in plain language terms — now more than ever. That’s the responsibility of app developers, Apple, and Google; unfortunately, users simply have very little control:

Facebook allows users to turn off the company’s ability to use the data it collects from third-party apps and websites for targeted ads. There is currently no way to stop the company from collecting the information in the first place, or using it for other purposes, such as detecting fake accounts. Germany’s top antitrust enforcer earlier this month ordered Facebook to stop using that data at all without permission, a ruling Facebook is appealing.

Vile.

Even with better disclosure rules, I think all developers should assume users don’t read privacy policies; they place their blind trust that the app will do the right thing. Developers are abusing users’ naivet&eacut;, and I think the corrosion of user trust will do long-term damage to the digital economy if it is not curtailed.

A Critique of the Presentation of ‘Classical’ Music on Apple Music

Mitchel Broussard of MacRumors interviewed Benjamin Charles and Franz Rumiz for a thoughtful critique of the way streaming services — and Apple Music, in particular — approach classical music:

In the end, Apple — and Spotify, Google, Amazon, etc. — have a tricky battle ahead of them if and when they decide to address the issue of classical music on streaming services. “It doesn’t seem to be a business priority [for Apple],” Charles admits, and in the current scheme of things, the company’s focus on pop and hip-hop in Apple Music is logical from a financial standpoint.

But that doesn’t change the fact that there are millions of classical music fans willing and ready to pay the company that can get these things right. “This is a completely untapped market,” Charles tells me. “One streaming service could completely own the classical music audience if it wanted to.”

A big point of contention is that Apple Music is designed for credited performers only, not for separate composers, performers, conductors, and soloists. This is critical for classical works, but I think an incorporation of multiple credits would also benefit pop, hip-hop, and rock genres. The producers and writers of contemporary music also deserve credit that simply isn’t surfaced in most streaming music services.

Study: Broadband ‘Zero Rating’ Actually Costs Customers More

Karl Bode, Vice:

In more recent years, ISPs have been pushing the idea of zero rating, which involves exempting select content from these arbitrary limits. AT&T, for example, now routinely exempts its own streaming content from its usage caps, yet still penalizes users should they use a competitor like Netflix. Comcast engages in the same behavior on its cable broadband network.

The anticompetitive and free speech issues with letting ISPs determine which services get an unfair advantage on the network should be fairly obvious. But broadband providers have tried to downplay those concerns by claiming that zero rating saves consumers money, and should be seen as akin to a 1-800 number for data or the bandwidth equivalent of free shipping.

Consumers, who often don’t understand that broadband usage caps are bogus cash grabs in the first place, often buy into the argument that they’re getting something for free by being allowed to bypass them.

But a new multi-year study by the non-profit Epicenter.works challenges those assumptions. The study, which took a look at wireless data prices in 30 European Union nations, found that the cost of wireless data plans were notably more expensive in countries that allowed zero rating as opposed to those that have prohibited the practice.

This study ought to be taken seriously around the world, but particularly in the United States where the FCC has gutted net neutrality legislation. Broadband should be treated as the utility it is, especially since telecommunications companies have morphed into vertically-integrated media conglomerates. The combination of a lack of antitrust enforcement and no net neutrality rules has created opportunities for abuse, price gouging, and increasingly siloed behaviour.

An Investigation of Fake FCC Comments Ostensibly Against Net Neutrality

Dell Cameron and Jason Prechtel, Gizmodo:

In May 2017, dozens of Americans came forward with claims that their identities had been used, without their consent, in a campaign to inundate the Federal Communications Commission with public comments critical of the Obama-era policy. Some told reporters that they’d never heard of net neutrality. Twenty seven signed an open letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai demanding a response. A year on, each of their names and addresses are still displayed on the federal agency’s website, right above, as the letter puts it, “a political statement that we did not sign onto.”

What was most curious, however, is that each of these people had supposedly submitted the very same comment; a veritable word salad of telecom industry talking points. In particular, the comment was a rebuke of the Obama administration’s exercise of “unprecedented regulatory power” in pursuit of net neutrality, a policy which it accused of “smothering innovation, damaging the American economy, and obstructing job creation.”

Internal FCC logs reviewed by Gizmodo for the first time offer clues as to why the matching comments led investigators in October to the doorstep of CQ Roll Call, a company that, while running an august newsroom in the nation’s capital, is also in the business of helping lobbyists construct digital “grassroots” campaigns aimed at influencing policymakers, and specifically, those controlling the FCC’s rulemaking process.

There’s a lot in Cameron and Prechtel’s excellent investigation, but the payoff is worth it. Apparently, CQ verifies everything submitted through its API, but also emailed the FCC to ask if a rate of 250,000 submissions per day would be fine with them. Oh, and the millions of cut-and-paste comments just so happen to overlap with submissions from CQ’s API key.

It is equally astonishing how blatant this kind of arguably fraudulent astroturfing is, and how the clever use of FOIAs by hardworking journalists is able to expose it.

Ejector App for MacOS Makes the Eject Key Useful

This new single-purpose app from Dave DeLong is excellent. Apple hasn’t sold a Mac with an optical drive in years, but many of their keyboards still feature an eject key — presumably for both legacy support and because they do still sell that external SuperDrive. My dad has one; I think he’s used it once in the last five years.

Anyway, Ejector runs in the background so, when you hit the eject key on your keyboard, you get a neat little window with all of your mounted drives, and you can pick which one to eject. There’s a free seven-day trial and it’s just ten bucks.

Like its creator, I hope this gets sherlocked.

Bloomberg Reports Multistage Rollout of ‘Marzipan’ Apps to Eventually Scale From iPhone to MacOS

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. wants to make it easier for software coders to create tools, games and other applications for its main devices in one fell swoop — an overhaul designed to encourage app development and, ultimately, boost revenue.

The aim of the multistep initiative, code-named “Marzipan,” is that by 2021, developers will be able to build an app once and have it work on the iPhone, iPad and Mac computers, people familiar with the effort said. That should spur the creation of new software, increasing the utility of the company’s gadgets.

You can tell Bloomberg is a capital-B business publication because the reporting of every Apple rumour must be justified by couching it in terms shareholders understand, like “revenue” and “gadgets”.

A three-year rollout forecast — or four-year, if you count Mojave’s superlatively sub-par collection of demo apps — seems generous, but I remain skeptical of the likelihood that any cross-platform app framework can be truly great. I get that things change, and that many Mac customers today might want to run their iOS apps across all of their Apple devices. But, man, what a pisser it would be if the Mac became a third-tier dumping ground for crappy ports.

Apple plans to hold its annual software conference from June 3 to June 7 in San Jose, California, according to permit filings reported recently by website MacRumors.

At the event, Apple also plans to debut new software features for its devices, including a dark mode for easier nighttime viewing and new productivity tools for the iPad. The company has also internally weighed previewing a new version of the high-end Mac Pro, according to people familiar with the deliberations.

The spectre of the new Mac Pro looms large over any other Mac updates this year. Even if it doesn’t ship until the end of the year, WWDC’s developers would be the perfect crowd to preview it for, as in 2012.

Samsung Announces Galaxy Fold, a Weird Folding Smartphone Available in April

Nicole Nguyen, Buzzfeed:

At an event in San Francisco on Wednesday, Samsung officially announced a name for its new foldable phone: the Galaxy Fold (lol).

It’s a mobile device that can be folded in half to fit in one hand or in your pocket, with a touchscreen that works like you’d expect a smartphone to. Then, when you need to see something in a larger format — BAM! — you can flip open the Galaxy Fold to reveal a gigantic 7.3-inch display.

Vlad Savov:

The Galaxy Fold is Samsung’s Google Glass: an exciting technical showcase that should never be released to the public, because it’ll sour everyone on the entire nascent category.

This comment probably won’t age well, but I don’t yet get the real-word allure of a device like this. Count me with Savov so far: this isn’t a great ambassador for a technology that may become spectacular, in more capable hands.

During the unveiling, Samsung emphasized the Fold’s versatility in being able to transform from an ordinary smartphone into a tablet just by opening it up. But this device — and others like it — are bad phones, and worse tablets. Every shot of the closed phone looks like it’s begging to be unfolded; its display looks narrow, uncomfortable, and cramped. It seems far better in its tablet-like configuration, but it is at best a diet version of a tablet.

I’m not down on this because it’s Samsung. I dig that this is experimental and weird. But it isn’t compelling to me as either a phone or a tablet, and it’s certainly not compelling to me as a device trying to be both.

Google Says Previously-Undisclosed Microphone in Nest Secure Devices Was ‘Never Supposed to Be a Secret’

Nick Bastone, Business Insider:

In early February, Google announced that its home security and alarm system Nest Secure would be getting an update — users could now enable its virtual assistant technology, Google Assistant.

The problem: Nest users didn’t know a microphone even existed on their security device to begin with.

The existence of a microphone on the Nest Guard (which is the alarm, keypad, and motion sensor component in the Nest Secure offering) was never disclosed in any of the product material for the device.

On Tuesday, a Google spokesperson told Business Insider the company had made an “error.”

I completely believe Google here; a deliberate failure to acknowledge an embedded microphone would be monumentally stupid to a degree they don’t usually approach. Of course, deciding which of Google and Facebook are better on privacy is a bit like trying to decide which species of flesh-eating bacteria is more wonderful to have, but Google isn’t quite the “digital gangster” that Facebook is.

Nevertheless, this is the kind of thing that makes me paranoid of smart home devices. If I owned one of these things and found out that the world’s biggest advertising company hid a microphone in my home for a year, I’d be livid. Wouldn’t anyone?

On the Timeliness of Apple’s Services Push

Steve Kovach, CNBC:

As iPhone sales continue to sink, Apple has made several key moves over the last year as it prepares new offerings to juice growth elsewhere in the business.

If you’ve been listening to CEO Tim Cook’s comments on earnings calls and in interviews recently, none of this should come as a surprise. The company has stopped reporting iPhone unit sales figures, and instead talks more about its growing base of active devices, which the company says can be used to squeeze out more revenue through its digital services like Apple Music, App Store sales and extra iCloud storage.

But it’s not just about those subscription services. Apple has made several shifts in recent months that signal its preparing to move beyond the iPhone in other ways, such as artificial intelligence, the growing smart home market and digital health monitoring.

A framing device I’ve seen a lot amongst tech analysts and journalists since Apple revised its first-quarter earnings forecast is the idea that the company’s increased push into services and other parts of its business is correlated with — or even because of — lower iPhone sales. I think this is a myopic view of the company’s products.

Let’s think about this in the inverse: I don’t see anyone seriously making the argument that Apple would not have increased their investments in services and machine learning if iPhone sales continued to grow.

More to the point, many of these service offerings were rumoured for a long time. Steve Jobs was asked about an Apple Music-like service in 2007. Apple’s apparently-forthcoming Netflix competitor has been rumoured for years. Even their long-rumoured car project was reported as being approved around the same time that the iPhone 6 was launched.

These projects all take lots of time; they are not a result of less-dramatic iPhone sales figures. Apple has been highlighting their subscription services more for a few years now and, in that time, they had their biggest-ever quarter, largely on the back of iPhone revenue. Based on all of this, the most likely reason that Apple is rumoured to be on the cusp of launching new services is simply because they’re ready now. Is this release time frame any different than it would have been if their most recent holiday quarter had surpassed expectations instead of falling short of Apple’s forecast? I don’t think there’s any evidence that supports that.

Facing Opposition, Amazon Scraps New York Office Plans

Timothy Lee, Ars Technica:

Amazon is canceling its controversial plan to build a new corporate campus in the Long Island City neighborhood of Queens. The plan, which included almost $3 billion in subsidies and tax breaks, provoked a grassroots backlash.

“The commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term,” Amazon said in a statement. “While polls show that 70 percent of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project.”

Barry Ritholtz:

Man, so many people are getting this wrong. No, Amazon did not pull out of the NYC deal — and a lot of people have done a terrible job trying to explain this.

[…]

Amazon should have been less mercenary. The world’s wealthiest man running The world’s most valuable company does not need to have everyone else subsidize a for-profit firm.

[…]

As a fire-breathing Wall Street working capitalist, allow me to share my crazy idea:

Build your own fucking HQ on your own goddamned dime.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, in an editorial published by Buzzfeed News, was one of the few voices I saw dissenting from the widespread praise for Amazon’s decision to discontinue its New York plans:

Nobody comes out of this looking good: Amazon, city and state politicians and the deal’s proponents and opponents all could have done a better job explaining its pros and cons. But the most worrisome group — and those who now need to be held accountable — are those who simply want no growth at all, believing that New York will somehow thrive forever regardless. Many of them have benefited from the city’s booming economy or rent regulations, and now they want to shut the door behind them. Put simply, they are playing with fire, and it is the rest of us who must either collectively stand up to them, or prepare to get collectively burned.

I think Chakrabarti’s piece is worth contemplating, but I disagree with its premise. I didn’t see a lot of opposition to Amazon’s plans for a New York office strictly or even primarily based on worries about growth. However, what I did see was ample concern about the way this project was handled. Amazon’s public nationwide RFP was a cruel joke, and applicant cities pitched the company in opaque, questionable ways. And this whole process occurred as the public increasingly began to question both enormous tech companies and development incentives.

If Amazon wants to try again, they should. I bet New York would welcome their office like they have Apple’s and Google’s — both of which have expanded in the city. But they do not need a multibillion-dollar incentive package.

Matthew Gardner of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy:

The company’s newest corporate filing reveals that, far from paying the statutory 21 percent income tax rate on its U.S. income in 2018, Amazon reported a federal income tax rebate of $129 million. For those who don’t have a pocket calculator handy, that works out to a tax rate of negative 1 percent. The fine print of Amazon’s income tax disclosure shows that this achievement is partly due to various unspecified “tax credits” as well as a tax break for executive stock options.

This isn’t the first year that the cyber-retailing giant has avoided federal taxes. Last year, the company paid no federal corporate income taxes on $5.6 billion in U.S. income.

This is solely at the federal level, but it is nevertheless shameful for one of the world’s largest and richest companies.

Lee Clow Announces Retirement

TBWA Worldwide announced Clow’s retirement in a press release:

“Think Different (Here’s to the Crazy Ones).” “Dogs Rule.” “Yo quiero Taco Bell.” “Keeps Going and Going.” “Impossible Is Nothing.” “That’s G.” Lee Clow, the visionary creative who touched the hearts of consumers and revitalized brands with iconic advertising campaigns, is retiring.

The Global Director of Media Arts at worldwide advertising collective TBWA, and founder and Chairman of TBWA\Media Arts Lab, will move into an advisory role as Chairman Emeritus of the agency he founded in 2006 to serve Apple and to embody his vision of an agency that impacts culture, rather than just “makes ads.”

Clow’s storied career speaks for itself. He worked on over thirty years’ worth of Apple ads, from the “1984” spot to the “1.24.14” ad shot entirely on iPhones. Truly a legend.

Adding a Separate Developer Account to Your iOS Device

I think this method, written up by Kyle Seth Gray, is probably the best and easiest way to add additional developer accounts to an iOS device. It’s even better than the method I shared yesterday. It’s also a method I haven’t seen documented officially.

This new two-factor authentication requirement for developer accounts feels like it was rushed and poorly communicated.

A Brief History of iOS’ Notes App

Jason Snell, writing in 2016 about the tendency of public figures to use screenshots of the Notes app to issue statements:

The report that Twitter may be extending character limits reminded me of a Notes-related trend I noticed once again over the holiday break. When you want to tweet out a long message to your followers, but you’re on your iPhone, what do you do?

Apparently you type up a message in the Notes app, take a screen shot of it, and then post the image in a Tweet.

Bobby Finger, writing in Jezebel the same year, collected several examples of celebrities and organizations doing this:

Apple’s Notes app is an essential supplement to any social media account run by a celebrity. No other text editor makes it easier to share your words with the world — if only because it’s always there, synced to all your Apple devices.

Lindsey Weber, writing for the New York Times earlier this year about how the Notes app is used for apologies:

The reasons for writing these Notes notes vary, but oftentimes they are mea culpas for public errors. Armie Hammer apologized with a Notes app note for criticizing his peers for posting grief selfies after Stan Lee’s death (“I want to apologize from the bottom of my heart and will be working on my Twitter impulse control”). Kendall Jenner apologized for her clothing line’s insensitive use of the Notorious B.I.G.’s and Tupac Shakur’s likenesses (“we are huge fans of their music”). Logan Paul apologized for videotaping a dead body in Japan (“I intended to raise awareness for suicide and suicide prevention”). Cardi B notably did not apologize for secretly marrying Offset (“at least ya can stop saying i had a baby out of wedlock”). Ariana Grande once apologized for licking a doughnut (“I will strive to be better”).

David Mack, writing for Buzzfeed News today (capitalization his):

This benign app isn’t usually used for matters of national or international consequence — until Thursday, that is.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders used Twitter to share the news, via the trusty Notes app, that the president was going to declare a national emergency.

YES. A NATIONAL EMERGENCY. VIA THE NOTES APP.

Appropriately enough, Mack’s article is written in several segmented screenshots of the Notes app. Unfortunately, that means that I had to retype the above in order to quote it. And, if you use text-to-speech software, you won’t be able to listen to this article as none of the alt tags are filled in.

Apple Starts Requiring Two-Factor Authentication for Developer Accounts

Apple sent this email to developers today:

In an effort to keep your account more secure, two-factor authentication will be required to sign in to your Apple Developer account and Certificates, Identifiers & Profiles starting February 27, 2019. This extra layer of security for your Apple ID helps ensure that you’re the only person who can access your account. If you haven’t already enabled two-factor authentication for your Apple ID, please learn more and update your security settings.

Brent Simmons:

I have two accounts — one for personal use, one for development use — and so do lots of developers.

I don’t know how to make this work. None of my devices are ever signed in to my developer account. That account exists purely for building and distributing apps.

I also have separate personal and developer Apple IDs, and my personal ID is already set up with two-factor authentication. Unlike two-factor verification, one device can be associated with multiple Apple IDs for authentication purposes. However, as far as I can tell, this quickly becomes complicated.

To register an iOS device with two-factor authentication, you must sign out of your personal Apple ID at the system level, which means you’re signing out of iCloud. This is a highly disruptive action. On a Mac, it’s much easier, because you can associate different MacOS users with their own Apple ID. So, the best recourse to set up two-factor authentication is probably to create a separate user account on your Mac, set it up with your developer Apple ID, and then follow Apple’s directions.

But then what? Two-factor authentication codes are sent to trusted devices signed into a particular Apple ID. So you can receive two-factor authentication codes for your developer Apple ID on your Mac when you’re logged into that specific account, but that account won’t be logged into your personal Apple ID’s features, like iMessage or Apple Music. Most solo or small team developers probably have a setup similar to Simmons’, where the developer Apple ID is just for development and nothing else. And that still doesn’t answer the question of how this is supposed to work for iOS devices, where switching between iCloud accounts is more-or-less a destructive action.

Apple is giving developers just two weeks to get two-factor authentication enabled on that account. If you, like me, are required to make other Apple ID account changes prior to setting up two-factor authentication, you should be aware that there is a three day waiting period after making those changes before you can enable two-factor authentication.

I’ve asked Apple about some of this and hope to hear back shortly. So far, I don’t think this requirement has been communicated very well, and I think it’s going to cause a lot of developers some headaches over the next two weeks.

Update: Jonathan Tarud points out that signing out of the Apple ID on the developer MacOS user account created to set this up will cause two-factor authentication to fall back to SMS verification. That isn’t elegant at all.

Apple Invites Hollywood Stars to March 25 Event

Anousha Sakoui and Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. is planning to unveil video and news subscription offerings next month, the first major new digital services from the company since 2015.

The Cupertino, California-based technology giant is planning a March 25 event to announce both services, according to people familiar with the plan. The iPhone maker invited Hollywood stars, including Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Garner and director JJ Abrams, to attend, one of the people said.

This corroborates and builds upon John Paczkowski’s report yesterday, indicating that a video subscription service is likely also in the cards. Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon created and star in “The Morning Show”, Apple’s first foray into scripted original programming.

Amazon’s Acquisition of Eero Feels Like Borg Assimilation

Dieter Bohn, the Verge:

You can’t turn on a screen anymore without wondering who is profiting from what your eyeballs are seeing. Eero didn’t really participate in that and Amazon does. So it’s assumed that nothing good can come of Amazon getting yet another potential treasure trove of personal data.

And it could absolutely be a treasure trove. Short of handing over the PIN for your phone or the password to your Snapchat account, there’s not a much more intimate set of information about you than what your Wi-Fi router knows. It knows when you’re home and when you’re away. It can suss out what websites you visit (before the SSL kicks in, anyway) and how many movies you’re streaming.

A few years ago, this would feel like a completely irrational concern. But we’re now living in an age where Facebook acquired a VPN to spy on its users’ activities; then, after Apple kicked it out of the App Store for violating its rules on allowable levels of creepiness, Facebook decided to work around Apple’s rules and pay users — including teenagers — to use it. Amazon traffics in similar practices of mass data collection, so it is truly a legitimate worry that they may — though not “at this time” — explore ways to coax users into giving up their household’s web traffic.

Panic to Rename Coda

Panic on Twitter:

Many of you noticed a new Coda on the scene — a reimagined document that just launched at http://coda.io/ — and were concerned about their name. Thanks for looking out for us! We’ve worked with them and resolved the collision — they are Coda and it’s ok.

The big twist: that also means the massive update to Panic’s Coda currently in the works will not be called Coda!!? (It actually makes a lot of sense — it really is a whole new app.) We’ll post some details on this exciting new thing in a few weeks. 2019 is gonna be fun!

Via Jason Snell:

As for Coda.io, it’s a startup that launched publicly last year that’s billed as a “new kind of productivity doc,” sort of a document that’s also a database that’s also a word processor. It’s a floor wax and a dessert topping.

This is something that Panic hinted at in their 2017 company report:

A lot has changed in the web development world since we first started working on Coda, not the least of which is a new set of really capable (and often free) competitors.

To catch up to today, we had to take a dramatic step. We’ve been informally calling it Coda Next during production. (We may even rebrand the product entirely, since it’s a dramatic step forward from today’s Coda.)

Call me crazy, but “Coda Next” — or, even better, just “Next” — sounds great as the name of a truly next-generation web development environment for Mac users.

Buzzfeed News: Apple Has an Event Planned for March 25

John Paczkowski, Buzzfeed News:

Apple has settled on a date for its first big product announcement of 2019. Sources tell BuzzFeed News that the company plans to hold a special event on March 25 at the Steve Jobs Theater on its Apple Park campus. Headlining the gathering: That subscription news service that has been all over the news today. Unlikely to make an appearance: next generation AirPods, or that rumored new iPad Mini.

Sources described the event as subscription services focused, but declined to say anything about Apple’s standalone video streaming service which is also rumored to debut in 2019. Earlier this year, The Information reported that Apple had told studios and networks to prepared for an April launch.

Nothing is impossible, but I would be very surprised if Apple News were the sole focus of this announcement, and if its terms are at all similar to the fifty-fifty split that the Wall Street Journal reported today.

Headlines Matter, and WWDC Dates Are Not Yet ‘Confirmed’

I think MacRumors has one of the best reporting teams around, but I think this story by Joe Rossignol — bearing the headline “WWDC 2019 Dates Confirmed: June 3-7 in San Jose” — misses the mark:

While we were already confident the WWDC 2019 dates would fall on June 3-7, we confirmed with a source that a large annual event of some kind will be taking place during that week at McEnery. Meanwhile, the second and fourth weeks of June are ruled out due to the already-announced O’Reilly Velocity conference on June 10-13 and the Sensors Expo on June 25-27 at McEnery.

In our continued research, we discovered that San Jose requires permitting for large public events such as Apple’s WWDC Bash, which took place at the Discovery Meadow park next to McEnery in 2018.

Following that thread, we unearthed a 2019 events calendar from the City of San Jose’s Office of Cultural Affairs that lists this year’s WWDC Bash at Discovery Meadow on the evening of Thursday, June 6. The event is named “Team San Jose 2019 WWDC” and is organized by “Apple.” An identical WWDC entry was listed in the Office of Cultural Affairs’ 2018 events calendar for the actual WWDC 2018 Bash.

This is great detective work, but I think the use of the word “confirmed” throughout this article and in the headline is misleading. The dates for WWDC are not confirmed until Apple announces them. At best, all independent evidence points to the first week of June as WWDC week in San Jose.

If you are confident in MacRumors’research, I’d start looking for refundable hotel reservations now. Prices on travel websites are already up compared to yesterday, when I last checked; once Apple announces the dates officially, you know they’ll just keep climbing.

‘Reduce Transparency’ in MacOS Mojave

Dr. Drang:

What bothers me most, though, is that transparency has no real meaning on the Mac. It’s just decoration, not tied to any spatial sense that we expect from our experience with the physical world. For example, if you start typing in the URL field in Safari, the menu of suggestions that extends down from the URL field takes on a lighter version of the Desktop color, basically the same “semi-transparent” color in the background of the Dock.

This is ludicrous. This menu isn’t directly in front of the Desktop, it’s in front of the browser window (which is white because I was on Google’s home page when I took the screenshot). There is no reason for it to look like you’re seeing through it to the Desktop. That it looks that way screws up the sense of layering, especially since it still has that shadow around its border.

This post, more or less, has been in my drafts folder for months because it’s the kind of thing that, as soon as I noticed it, I could not dismiss it. It’s a dagger through my eye.

For what it’s worth, I don’t necessarily share Drang’s complaints with transparency more generally on the Mac; I think it’s more decorative than helpful, but it’s fine. But I keep the “Reduce Transparency” setting switched on mostly because I prefer a solid background for the menu bar. The resulting layering and compositing doesn’t make any spatial sense and, especially with a saturated desktop picture, is often jarring.

Sensor Tower: U.S. iPhone Users Spent, on Average, $79 on Apps Last Year

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

Apple’s push to get developers to build subscription-based apps is now having a notable impact on App Store revenues. According to a new report from Sensor Tower due out later this week, revenue generated per U.S. iPhone grew 36 percent, from $58 in 2017 to $79 last year. As is typical, much of that increase can be attributed to mobile gaming, which accounted for more than half of this per-device average. However, more substantial growth took place in the categories outside of gaming — including those categories where subscription-based apps tend to rule the top charts, the firm found.

[…]

As usual, mobile gaming continued to play a large role in iPhone spending. In 2018, gaming accounted for nearly 56 percent of the average consumer spend — or $44 out of the total $79 spent per iPhone.

The next-biggest categories for spending were Entertainment, Music, and Social Networking — each averaging under $10 per iPhone. It blows my mind that users will spend an average of over forty bucks a year on games; equally, that non-game apps are often on the receiving end of user backlash for daring to charge a flat rate of five or ten dollars. Would it be more acceptable to charge a dollar per month? I would hate if most of the paid apps I use daily switched to that model.

Amazon to Acquire Eero, Makers of Mesh WiFi Systems

Amazon:

Amazon and eero today announced that they have entered into a definitive merger agreement under which Amazon will acquire eero. eero’s home mesh WiFi systems set up in minutes and blanket every room of a customer’s home in high-performing, reliable WiFi. eero is already delighting Amazon customers with its products and services, as indicated by eero’s 4.6-star product rating on Amazon.com.

Every time there’s hot news in the WiFi router space — which, granted, is kind of an oxymoron — I remain mystified that Apple chose to stop making their own, especially in an age of increased consumer awareness of digital privacy and the growing “smart home” market.

Kashmir Hill Concludes Her Experiment in Blocking the Five Biggest Tech Companies

Kashmir Hill, Gizmodo:

Critics of the big tech companies are often told, “If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.” I did this experiment to find out if that is possible, and I found out that it’s not—with the exception of Apple.

These companies are unavoidable because they control internet infrastructure, online commerce, and information flows. Many of them specialize in tracking you around the web, whether you use their products or not. These companies started out selling books, offering search results, or showcasing college hotties, but they have expanded enormously and now touch almost every online interaction. These companies look a lot like modern monopolies.

Since the experiment ended, I’ve resumed using the tech giants’ services, but I use them less. I deliberately seek out alternatives to do what I can, as a consumer, not to help them monopolize the market.

This experiment was pretty extreme, but it shows the amount by which these companies — but, in particular, Google and Amazon — have gained control over the web. It also illustrates just how little Apple exercises theirs. For a company that has often been criticized for platform lock-in and its lack of so-called “openness”, Apple sure does offer consumers a lot of choice: either you buy their stuff, or you don’t. You can’t really say that about the other major tech firms.

Death to Autoplay

Adam Engst of TidBits is mad as hell about autoplay:

The auto-play offense that has pushed me over the edge is Netflix’s Apple TV app, which auto-plays previews for movies and TV shows as you browse through Netflix’s library. Within 3 seconds of when you navigate to a show’s icon, it starts playing a preview for the show, complete with audio. It’s difficult even to read the show’s description in that amount of time, much less reflect on whether you might want to watch the show. As soon as the audio starts, it interrupts whatever thoughts might be going through your head (Josh Centers made this example video; it shows what he hears as his 5-year-old browses).

This behaviour drives me absolutely nuts. It drives everyone I know nuts. And here’s the thing: Netflix knows it drives people nuts. Last year, Dan Jackson of Thrillist cited several pieces pointing out just how awful and irritating and downright shitty this feature is. There’s a Twitter account dedicated to the terribleness of Netflix autoplay.

But there’s nothing we can do about it because I guess whatever metrics they use to measure engagement or whatever are overriding common sense and basic decency. Short of unsubscribing, it seems we’re stuck with this because Netflix simply won’t listen to the complaints of their users.

American Broadband Companies Cut Capital Expenditure in 2018, Undermining Argument for Dismantling Net Neutrality

Kiran Stacey, Financial Times (via Lindsey Barrett):

Companies such as AT&T and Verizon had argued for years against net neutrality rules that forced them to treat all internet traffic equally. The companies said that without such restrictions, they would be able to charge companies more for delivering their internet traffic faster, bringing in money they could use to invest in their networks.

In late 2017 Ajit Pai, the Trump-appointed FCC chairman, announced his organisation would repeal the rules, in one of the most significant pieces of deregulation undertaken by the Trump administration.

Mr Pai said at the time the previous rules had “depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation”.

However, the 2018 figures suggest that the change has not led to an immediate investment boom.

Following the introduction of the net neutrality rules in 2015, the big four telecoms companies increased overall capital spending in both 2016 and 2017. Last year, however, investment slipped by 0.4 per cent.

Remember how, just after net neutrality laws were introduced, capital expenditure actually rose? And then how, after those rules were repealed, the telecommunications lobby and Ajit Pai went back in time to ascribe those capex increases to the repeal? Well, now we’ve reached the logical conclusion of this story, where it’s revealed that the capex argument was, of course, complete bullshit all along.

To be clear: I’m fairly certain net neutrality laws have virtually no impact on capital expenditure by ISPs, as stated in Stacey’s article:

Craig Moffett, a telecoms analyst and founding partner at MoffettNathanson, said: “You have to ask whether any sane person would make long-term investments based on a change in FCC policy, especially one that is subject to so much legal and political volatility.”

Mr Moffett estimates the industry will increase its capital spending by 3.3 per cent this year, something he called “relatively restrained” given the favourable tax and regulatory regime the Trump administration has tried to put in place.

Capex will go up and down based on actual demand for broadband, expansion plans, new technologies — Sprint cited 5G rollout for its 2018 increase in capex — and equipment replacement.

So why did Pai and the rest of the Republican commissioners vote to roll back net neutrality rules? Karl Bode, writing in Techdirt in 2017, before the repeal of the laws:

At the heart of the sales pitch for this “modernization” of the FCC and killing of net neutrality rules? An ocean of farmed industry data insisting that net neutrality protections stifle broadband investment, damage the self-esteem of children, harm puppies, and threaten to (rip the Earth off of its orbital axis*. All magically fixed, of course, if we free some of the least-liked and most anti-competitive companies in America from regulatory oversight and public accountability.

In short: an ideologically-compulsive disregard for regulation, even if those regulations are sensible, widely-supported, and necessary in an age of an unrestrained anticompetitive merger and acquisition environment.

Jeff Bezos Reveals A.M.I., Owners of the National Enquirer, Tried to Extort Him

Jezz Bezos writing on Medium:

Something unusual happened to me yesterday. Actually, for me it wasn’t just unusual — it was a first. I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse. Or at least that’s what the top people at the National Enquirer thought. I’m glad they thought that, because it emboldened them to put it all in writing. Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten.

[…]

In the AMI letters I’m making public, you will see the precise details of their extortionate proposal: They will publish the personal photos unless Gavin de Becker and I make the specific false public statement to the press that we “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”

If we do not agree to affirmatively publicize that specific lie, they say they’ll publish the photos, and quickly. And there’s an associated threat: They’ll keep the photos on hand and publish them in the future if we ever deviate from that lie.

I am not a big Jeff Bezos or Amazon fan — though I am a Washington Post subscriber — but this is such a great move. I can’t imagine a worse person to blackmail than someone who has the power and means to dig dirt forever, especially by a shady tabloid with potentially deep political ties that they would rather not be exposed. By the way, Bezos apparently published this without giving his lawyers a heads-up.

Luppe B. Luppen, who goes by “southpaw” on Twitter, pointed out that A.M.I. agreed last year (PDF) to, among other conditions, not commit any crimes in order to avoid prosecution, as a reward for their cooperation in connection with keeping quiet a story about Donald Trump’s affair with a model to influence the election.

Anyway, A.M.I. is a terrible company and I hope, by overplaying their hand, they get buried.

Apple Releases Security Update With Fix for Group FaceTime Bug, Promises to Compensate Teenaged Finder

Apple:

FaceTime

Available for: iPhone 5s and later, iPad Air and later, and iPod touch 6th generation

Impact: The initiator of a Group FaceTime call may be able to cause the recipient to answer

Description: A logic issue existed in the handling of Group FaceTime calls. The issue was addressed with improved state management.

CVE-2019-6223: Grant Thompson of Catalina Foothills High School, Daven Morris of Arlington, TX

I owe readers a correction. The way this bug presented itself caused me to think that video and microphone data was being transmitted from the device before the recipient answered the call. Apple’s phrasing in the “Impact” section here means that I misinterpreted how this bug behaved.

There are three additional security fixes in this update, including one for a vague vulnerability when using Live Photos during a FaceTime call. Apple says that customers who have not applied this security update will not be able to use Live Photos during a FaceTime call.

Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Apple has apologized for missing [the first reports of this bug] and has vowed to improve its bug reporting system to make sure future bug reports are distributed to the right people. Apple will be compensating the Thompson family for finding and reporting the bug, and Apple will be providing an additional scholarship to be put towards Thompson’s education.

Kudos. While they’re at it, Apple should also reward Linus Henze for the bug he found in the MacOS Keychain.

Safari 12.1, Shipping in Next MacOS and iOS Updates, Drops Support for Do Not Track Preference

Contrary to public perception, Do Not Track has always been entirely voluntary for websites. Web properties were given the chance to respect the preferences of users who proactively stated that they did not wish to be tracked. Not only did they ignore this preferences, they cynically exploited it to more accurately fingerprint individual users. This is why features like Intelligent Tracking Prevention and content blockers are so critical; they are tools for users to gain back control over the web that they have been forced to cede.

Messages’ Mixed Messages

By pretty much any measure, iMessage is an unmitigated and hardly-celebrated success. It is a proprietary, encrypted, synchronized messaging protocol that requires virtually no configuration. It can be pseudonymous or effectively anonymous. It supports multiple media types — text, of course, but also photo, audio, video, web links, Animoji/Memoji, digital touch, Tapbacks, and so on. Despite this rich feature set, it works alongside the universal SMS standard, and most of its extended functionality gracefully falls back to SMS requirements where applicable. There is simply nothing like it in any other app or on any other platform.

The impressive thing about these add-ons is how little they’ve changed the fundamental app. If you want to use all of these extended features, they’re there; if you don’t, it’s the same Messages app you’re used to.

But as much as I appreciate how unobtrusive the additions to Messages are, their hidden nature makes them less discoverable than they could be. Message effects, for example, are hidden behind a long-press of the send button. Nobody is going to stumble into that accidentally; nobody is going to think to even do that. I see the wisdom in not wishing to make the platform’s most-used app any more complicated than it needs to be, but many of these features are borderline inaccessible. They’re also not updated very often — new Animoji characters only appear with the occasional iOS update, and message effects haven’t been altered in a few years.

My personal bugaboo is the photo effects feature. Introduced in iOS 12, photo effects work kind of like Snapchat lenses or Instagram Stories. You can transform your selfie with the addition of Animoji or Memoji characters, add filters, and layer on text and stickers from other iMessage apps. There’s a lot to like about this feature, but it’s mired in an inscrutable and visually heavy user interface.

Please thank me for the exclusion of my face.
Messages Photo Effects
Let me walk you through this. You start by tapping the camera icon from within a message thread; even if you’re adding an Animoji to a photo of yourself, you cannot launch this from within the Animoji iMessage app. Then, tap the star or pentagram icon in the lower-left to start adding effects. This button does not appear anywhere else in the system,1 so your ability to figure out what it does rests entirely on your having known about it previously. Effects are added by scrolling horizontally through the app drawer at the bottom, and are applied by opening an app, selecting an effect, and then tapping the × button to close the panel. Tapping “Done” in the upper-right will, counterintuitively, dismiss the entire camera view.

This is a mess.

And, when you consider Apple’s history with this kind of thing, it’s a surprising miss. Apple has been popping cameras into the display bezels of Macs since 2005; ten years ago, you couldn’t scroll through a Facebook news feed without seeing Photo Booth pictures from your friends. That’s been replaced on every platform by postings of one smartphone photo after another — no surprise, since the total number of smartphone users worldwide far exceeds the number of traditional computer users, let alone the number of Mac users. But, even though many of those pictures may come from iPhones, virtually none of them take advantage of Apple’s photo effects because those effects are only available in Messages.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t understand why, when Apple shipped the first iPhone with a front-facing camera in 2010, they did not include a Photo Booth-like app.

To be clear, I do not think it’s particularly important for Apple to chase popularity of its own apps in public social networks. The fact that Apple’s Clips app is, as of writing, the one hundred and twenty-fourth most popular app in the Photo & Video category in the Canadian App Store right now — just barely above Flickr’s app and less popular than Canon’s Connect app — is, I think, immaterial to Apple’s overall strategy. Even so, placing photo effects solely in Messages behind several layers of obfuscation and user interface weight is a bizarre choice. I feel the same way for message effects, many of the features of iMessage apps, and even Tapbacks.

I’m not advocating for a radical redesign of Messages; I’m not even convinced it’s critical for Messages itself to be redone. But I do want to feel some confidence that these features are somehow important or interesting to Apple because I find them interesting and important. They feature Memoji on billboards, but make it hard to use or even find for an average user. That is completely unlike the seamless and easy core features of Messages. I think that confusion only adds to my feelings that these extended features are needlessly complex.

The thing I keep returning to as I write this is the core beauty of Messages: its simplicity. Among the things that are most notable about these extended features is how they don’t complicate the core functionality of Messages; it only becomes a more complicated app if you figure out how to make it so. Under the surface, of course, it has become more complex, but that isn’t obvious; as a result, neither are these extended features obvious. Is there a way to make them more visible without impeding the clarity of Messages? I’m not sure. But, at the very least, I’d like to see some of these features broken out into less-siloed parts of iOS so that it’s easier to enjoy them outside of the context of an iMessage thread.


  1. A small correction: this button also appears in FaceTime for the same purpose. I still think it’s unintelligible. Thanks to Joshua Price for pointing this out. ↩︎

Hundreds of Bounty Hunters Had Access to AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint Customers’ Real-Time Location Data for Years

Joseph Cox, Vice:

Often CerCareOne’s phone location service — known in the industry as a phone ping — would use data from cell towers and provide a Google Maps-style interface to the bounty hunter of the device’s approximate location.

But some of the data available to CerCareOne customers included a phone’s “assisted GPS” or A-GPS data, according to documents and screenshots of the service in action provided by two independent sources. A-GPS inherently relies on telecom company information — it uses a phone’s GPS chip in conjunction with information gleaned from the telecom network to locate a phone. It is used to locate cell phones that dial 911 in an emergency and it operates faster than a phone’s GPS chip alone, which can sometimes take minutes to connect to a satellite, according to telecom filings with the Federal Communications Commission. […]

Blake Reid, associate clinical professor at Colorado Law, told Motherboard in an email that “with assisted GPS, your location can be triangulated within just a few meters. This allows constructing a detailed record of everywhere you travel.”

“The only reason we grant carriers any access to this information is to make sure that first responders are able to locate us in an emergency,” Reid added. “If the carriers are turning around and using that access to sell information to bounty hunters or whomever else, it is a shocking abuse of the trust that the public places in them to safeguard privacy while protecting public safety.”

This is a damning report. Even though all cell carriers involved pointed to commitments they had made previously to discontinue location sharing deals with third parties — which, by the way, I still doubt — these reports paint a picture of an industry repeatedly undermining basic consumer trust. As long as individuals’ data can be traded and sold with virtually no oversight, this kind of thing will keep happening. It’s unconscionable that little effort has been made to regulate an industry that cannot stop itself from stooping to the absolute lowest ethical level and still finding room below it.

AnandTech and Paul Thurrott Each Published iPhone XR Reviews This Week

So here’s something a bit unexpected: two technology news websites have published reviews of a late-model iPhone. It’s February; the phone in question was released over three months ago. But they’re good reviews, and I recommend reading them.

Andrei Frumusanu at AnandTech took the usual route of that website and dove deep into its hardware characteristics and performance, and comparing it to the iPhone XS models. This, from their graphics performance tests, is notable:

Because of the relatively low screen resolution on the part of the XR’s display — a sub-FHD 1792×828 — I’ve had a lot of trouble actually getting workloads to push the A12’s GPU to its peak frequencies in on-screen scenarios. This causes an interesting dilemma for the iPhone XR: It has absolutely abundant GPU performance that won’t be used any-time soon. As game developers on iOS will be targeting and tuning their workloads to run smoothly on the most demanding devices of a generation, it means that games will most likely be setting their baseline as the higher-end iPhone XS Max, which has to push over twice the pixel resolution. The net result is that for any given 60fps graphics workload, the iPhone XR will run cooler and with a longer battery life than what you would experience on the XS or XS Max.

Paul Thurrott is smitten, too:

No matter. The iPhone XR, despite these apparent deficiencies, still emerges as the best new iPhone. And I’m not the only one who has figured this out: The iPhone XR has been the best-selling iPhone since it launched, and that includes both new iPhones — meaning the models that Apple launched late last year–as well as the cheaper, older iPhones that it still continues to sell as well.

That may not surprise those who believe that price is the primary driving factor for that success. But I believe that price is only one element of what makes the iPhone XR so special. And that Apple would be wise to examine why this model is so successful and not just immediately abandon the design, as it did previously with the “unapologetically plastic” iPhone 5C. Unlike that rip-off, the iPhone XR has a future.

The iPhone XR is a remarkable product, and its success is not shocking to me at all. But I still believe that this iPhone lineup has become more confusing over time, with the 2018 models differentiating little in naming or overall appearance. This round of reviews seems like a good reminder that the iPhone XR isn’t the junior or “lite” version of the flagship XS models; it’s a terrific product that can stand alone.

Apple Announces Departure of Angela Ahrendts in April, Replaced by Deirdre O’Brien

Apple:

Apple today announced that Deirdre O’Brien is taking on new responsibilities for Apple’s retail and online stores in an expanded role as senior vice president of Retail + People, reporting to CEO Tim Cook. After five transformative years leading the company’s retail and online stores, Angela Ahrendts plans to depart Apple in April for new personal and professional pursuits.

Less than a year ago, O’Brien was promoted to lead HR-related functions; now, she’s adding retail to her plate. Impressive.

Ahrendts, of course, has made a huge impact on Apple’s retail stores. She has been, I think, successful in pushing stores past a purely retail necessity and into a more relationship-driven role. But while the new retail stores are architectural marvels and are still uniquely good places for trying out the company’s products, the support experience and training seem to be worse than, say, ten years ago. I hope this sort of thing is O’Brien’s focus.

This is largely unrelated to today’s news but, just last week, Vogue Business published an interview with Ahrendts by Suzy Menkes. Odd timing aside, this stood out to me:

When asked about the warning, Ahrendts points out that Apple is primarily a phone company. The iPhone generated 62 per cent of its $266 billion in sales last year, while retail accounts for about a quarter of revenue, according to Erwan Rambourg, managing director at HSBC. “In retail, the phone is not our largest category,” says Ahrendts. “We are actually number one in the company for Mac.”

It makes total sense that Apple Stores sell a lot of Macs, but to hear that it’s even bigger than their iPhone sales indicates just how important these stores are for the Mac.

To Comply With Recent Legislation, Apple Is Now Storing Russian Users’ Data on Local Servers

Amy MacKinnon, Foreign Policy:1

Roskomnadzor, the Russian government agency that oversees media and telecommunications, has confirmed for the first time that Apple Russia is to adhere to a 2014 law that requires any company handling the digital data of Russian citizens to process and store it on servers physically located in Russia. Under Russian counterterrorism laws, Apple could be compelled to decrypt and hand over user data to security services on request.

[…]

It’s not clear what data Apple will store on its servers in Russia. The company’s registration with the media agency lists names, addresses, email addresses, and phone numbers as the kinds of user data it processes. Apple Russia’s registration documents, filed on Dec. 25, make no mention of its iCloud service, which can host user photos, videos, documents, contacts, and messages.

“Seems that something is hidden here because of course Apple collects more data,” said Sergey Medvedev, a senior lawyer with the Moscow-based law firm Gorodissky and Partners.

Russian law takes a broad interpretation of personal data and applies it to anything that could be used to identify individuals or their behavior. Photos, music, and e-book downloads would all indirectly be defined as personal data, said Medvedev, who specializes in internet and e-commerce law.

This is very similar to China’s requirements for iCloud, but it’s odd that the filing does not mention iCloud or its data types. It isn’t clear to me how Russia could expect to decrypt any user data with the exception of email, as it’s end-to-end encrypted in Russia the same way as it is anywhere else.

So far, it seems that Apple has been happy to move data to local servers so long as they get to maintain control over encryption and privacy practices. But what happens when a country passes a law that requires them to relinquish their ability to secure user data? Australia is in the process of doing so, but there’s no sign of a difference on Apple’s iCloud security page, so I’m not sure what to make of that situation at this point. Does Apple modify their encryption practices to satisfy a single country? Enabling such an egregious privacy violation sets a pretty dangerous precedent, I think, particularly for totalitarian states like Russia and China. Does Apple pull their services from Australia? I doubt it, but I suppose we’ll find out.


  1. Which, by the way, has one of the worst websites I’ve visited in a long time. In the time it took me to read the article, write this post’s title, and write the preceding words in this footnote alone, over a thousand HTTP requests have been made. Scorecard, Chartbeat, Quantserve, and so many other analytics scripts produce hundreds of requests every minute. There’s simply no reason any website needs to have such granular or frequent measurements. The only reason I’m sending you, valuable reader, to Foreign Policy is because they were the first to report this story and they have the best explanation. The page is now well over two thousand HTTP requests deep, and on its way to three thousand. I strongly recommend that you have a content blocker switched on. ↩︎

Warby Parker Updates App With Virtual Try-On

Michael Potuck, 9to5Mac:

Warby Parker is out with an update to its iOS app that brings a useful new feature to its collection of spectacles: Virtual Try-On. With Apple’s ARKit and TrueDepth camera tech, the company’s new software lets users see “the realistic color, texture, and size of each style— using just your iPhone X [and later]” while shopping for new glasses with its app.

Warby Parker’s app previously launched TrueDepth camera support for recommending glasses to users, but hasn’t implemented the tech into a virtual try-on experience until now.

This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve hoped to see with ARKit. It’s especially valuable for a company like Warby Parker because eyeglasses are incredibly personal, and Warby Parker doesn’t make their free try-on program available outside of the United States. For many people, this is the only way to “try on” a pair of their glasses. I tried it and I think it works very well. I can’t wait to see more of this sort of stuff.

Apple’s Slightly Uncomfortable Power of Good

Kevin Roose, New York Times:

It’s bizarre and somewhat troubling that Apple could unilaterally punish a competitor for its privacy sins. (Imagine if McDonald’s could shut down Burger King franchises for health code violations, with little explanation and no recourse for appeal.) But it’s hard to argue with Apple’s decision here. It made rules governing what developers for Apple products were allowed to do, Facebook broke them, and it’s now paying a price.

Apple’s defense of user privacy, while certainly self-interested, is a boon to its users and a lever for change within the tech industry. And if Mr. Cook wants to take a strong stand against app developers that routinely violate users’ trust, he could start with the biggest privacy violator of all. Facebook won’t change on its own, but a chastening from Apple might be what the company needs to get its act together.

Casey Newton:

Facebook is an enlightened dictatorship, but so is Apple. Tim Cook and his lieutenants dictate the terms of an enormous economy, and can change that economy on a whim. Today Apple may have acted out of consistency with its privacy principles, to the benefit of some consumers. (And to the detriment of anyone who was counting on that $20 gift card!) But as Apple faces more pressure to serve as, as Roose put it, de facto privacy regulator, we may find ourselves uncomfortable with its monopolistic power.

I’ve been following along with Kashmir Hill’s experiment to try to rid herself of her dependence on the big five tech companies. She hasn’t published her experience with dropping Apple yet, but a pattern emerged in her reports on tying to stop using Amazon, Google, and — to a lesser extent — Microsoft: all of these companies are tightly integrated into the tech ecosystem at large, so it’s almost impossible to be independent of them. Take Amazon, for instance. Hill found that removing its store from her life was difficult, but getting rid of Amazon Web Services was practically impossible because it’s the infrastructure for lots of other tech companies.

Apple, by comparison, seems like it would be much easier to remove from your life because the company provides virtually no business-to-business services; there is no “Apple Web Services” product. Apple has much less power, in that regard.

However, running the App Store is an enormously powerful position to be in. It is probably their closest equivalent to providing a product or service upon which other companies are dependent. You could use Facebook or Pinterest or Twitter in Safari, but their apps are much better. The “sweet solution” explained at WWDC 2007 was anything but.

What Apple did in this circumstance was extraordinary — motivated by Facebook’s utter disregard for its platform rules and using that for its callous treatment of the privacy of its users and, in particular, minors. What Facebook does should not have been possible in an adequate legal privacy framework. But, in the absence of regulators that do their jobs, I think Apple made the right call here. They aren’t a bully without a conscience; they have platform rules that must be followed, and they anything but contempt for user privacy.1 They got this right, but regulators should step up with legislation to protect personal information.

I get where Newton and Roose are coming from when they describe Apple’s power in this situation. It’s a bit alarming that Apple has this kind of control over Facebook. Scarier, to me, is that only Apple has the moral compass and the power to exercise this kind of control over Facebook.


  1. The FaceTime bug that lit up the web earlier this week was a bug. It was a bad, terrible, awful, intrusive bug, but a bug — not a business model. ↩︎

Google to Stop Distributing Screenwise App, Highly Similar to Facebook’s Creepy Research App

Zack Whittaker, Josh Constine, and Ingrid Lunden, TechCrunch:

Google has been running an app called Screenwise Meter, which bears a strong resemblance to the app distributed by Facebook Research that has now been barred by Apple, TechCrunch has learned.

[…]

After we asked Google whether its app violated Apple policy, Google announced it will remove Screenwise Meter from Apple’s Enterprise Certificate program and disable it on iOS devices.

The company said in a statement to TechCrunch:

“The Screenwise Meter iOS app should not have operated under Apple’s developer enterprise program — this was a mistake, and we apologize. We have disabled this app on iOS devices. This app is completely voluntary and always has been. We’ve been upfront with users about the way we use their data in this app, we have no access to encrypted data in apps and on devices, and users can opt out of the program at any time.”

Looks like Google got the message after Apple proved that they would not hesitate to act upon clear violations of their enterprise distribution rules for anti-privacy purposes. I wonder if they’ll also act upon other big-name violators of their enterprise rules, like Amazon and DoorDash.

Update: Apple has now pulled Google’s enterprise certificate. Just because Google tried to pull their creepy app and apologize before Apple intervened, that doesn’t mean it didn’t violate Apple’s enterprise distribution agreement.

Fox Con

Remember Foxconn’s new factory in Wisconsin, for which the region and state provided it billions in incentives? Jess Macy Yu and Karl Plume, reporting today for Reuters:

Announced at a White House ceremony in 2017, the 20-million square foot campus marked the largest greenfield investment by a foreign-based company in U.S. history and was praised by President Donald Trump as proof of his ability to revive American manufacturing.

Foxconn, which received controversial state and local incentives for the project, initially planned to manufacture advanced large screen displays for TVs and other consumer and professional products at the facility, which is under construction. It later said it would build smaller LCD screens instead.

Now, those plans may be scaled back or even shelved, Louis Woo, special assistant to Foxconn Chief Executive Terry Gou, told Reuters. He said the company was still evaluating options for Wisconsin, but cited the steep cost of making advanced TV screens in the United States, where labor expenses are comparatively high.

“In terms of TV, we have no place in the U.S.,” he said in an interview. “We can’t compete.”

This matches Foxconn’s international expansion strategy, as reported by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, of starting with a big plan to secure incentives, and then walking it back over time to the point where the result bears little resemblance to the promise.

Back in 2017, around the time when representatives were finalizing this deal, Scot Ross of One Wisconsin Now wrote a prescient op-ed for the Cap Times:

The history of Foxconn promising major investments in facilities and gaudy numbers of jobs versus the reality of what they do, or don’t, deliver ought to create more skepticism.

In Pennsylvania, a 2013 promise to invest $30 million in a new manufacturing facility remains unfulfilled. Overtures in Arizona and Colorado have produced nothing. In fact, there is a global pattern of Foxconn not delivering on promised investments in facilities or job creation.

As patterns are wont to do, Foxconn’s streak has continued.

U.A.E. Spying Team Had Tool to Pilfer Contents of iOS Devices by Messaging Them

Joel Schectman and Christopher Bing, Reuters:

A team of former U.S. government intelligence operatives working for the United Arab Emirates hacked into the iPhones of activists, diplomats and rival foreign leaders with the help of a sophisticated spying tool called Karma, in a campaign that shows how potent cyber-weapons are proliferating beyond the world’s superpowers and into the hands of smaller nations.

[…]

The ex-Raven operatives described Karma as a tool that could remotely grant access to iPhones simply by uploading phone numbers or email accounts into an automated targeting system. The tool has limits — it doesn’t work on Android devices and doesn’t intercept phone calls. But it was unusually potent because, unlike many exploits, Karma did not require a target to click on a link sent to an iPhone, they said.

In 2016 and 2017, Karma was used to obtain photos, emails, text messages and location information from targets’ iPhones. The technique also helped the hackers harvest saved passwords, which could be used for other intrusions.

It isn’t clear whether the Karma hack remains in use. The former operatives said that by the end of 2017, security updates to Apple Inc’s iPhone software had made Karma far less effective.

This story is just one part of a deeper investigation from Schectman and Bing into surveillance activities by the United Arab Emirates on dissidents and activists, which is worth reading. Remarkably, it even cites a named source.

The timing of the capabilities of this exploit coincide with the introduction of iMessage media previews. If I were looking to create a security hole in an iPhone without any user interaction, that’s the first place I’d look. Also, note that this report states that this exploit is now “far less effective”; it does not say that the vulnerabilities have been patched.

Following TechCrunch’s Scoop About Facebook’s Research App, Apple Has Revoked Facebook’s Enterprise Certificate

Tom Warren and Jacob Kastrenakes, the Verge:

Apple has shut down Facebook’s ability to distribute internal iOS apps, from early releases of the Facebook app to basic tools like a lunch menu. A person familiar with the situation tells The Verge that early versions of Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and other pre-release “dogfood” (beta) apps have stopped working, as have other employee apps, like one for transportation. Facebook is treating this as a critical problem internally, we’re told, as the affected apps simply don’t launch on employees’ phones anymore.

The shutdown comes in response to news that Facebook has been using Apple’s program for internal app distribution to track teenage customers with a “research” app.

This is almost a better response than if Apple pulled Facebook’s apps from the App Store. It doesn’t impact typical users at all, but it sounds like it’s causing chaos within the company. And Facebook got themselves into this mess because their internal apps use the same enterprise certificate as their creepy VPN app. Hilarious.

Update: Facebook did the PR rounds this morning explaining that it was shutting down its iOS research program, but Josh Constine of TechCrunch reports that Apple invalidated the enterprise certificate before Facebook started making those claims.

Surveys Indicate That Americans Don’t Want Highly-Targeted Advertising

Joseph Turow and Chris Jay Hoofnagle, in an op-ed in the New York Times:

In a recent Wall Street Journal commentary, Mark Zuckerberg claimed that Facebook users want to see ads tailored to their interests. But the data show the opposite is true. With the help of major polling firms, we conducted two large national telephone surveys of Americans in 2012 and 2009. When we asked people whether they wanted websites they visit to show them commercial ads, news or political ads “tailored to your interests,” a substantial majority said no. Around half did say they wanted discounts tailored to their interests. But that too changed after we told them how companies gathered the information that enables tailoring, such as following you on a website. Bottom line: If Facebook’s users in the United States are similar to most Americans (and studies suggest they are), large majorities don’t want personalized ads — and when they learn how companies find out information about them, even greater percentages don’t want them.

I’ll go one further: I don’t think highly-targeted advertising is substantially more effective at selling products and services than more generally targeted ads based on the page or website it’s placed on. It’s certainly not worth amassing huge databases of individuals’ preferences, tastes, web browsing histories, and demographic information.

These surveys are seven to ten years old. I think this would be a great time to poll people again.

Facebook Is Paying Teenagers to Install Its VPN, Which Monitors Their Network Activity in the Background

Josh Constine, TechCrunch:

Desperate for data on its competitors, Facebook has been secretly paying people to install a “Facebook Research” VPN that lets the company suck in all of a user’s phone and web activity, similar to Facebook’s Onavo Protect app that Apple banned in June and that was removed in August. Facebook sidesteps the App Store and rewards teenagers and adults to download the Research app and give it root access in what may be a violation of Apple policy so the social network can decrypt and analyze their phone activity, a TechCrunch investigation confirms. Facebook admitted to TechCrunch it was running the Research program to gather data on usage habits.

Since 2016, Facebook has been paying users ages 13 to 35 up to $20 per month plus referral fees to sell their privacy by installing the iOS or Android “Facebook Research” app. Facebook even asked users to screenshot their Amazon order history page. The program is administered through beta testing services Applause, BetaBound and uTest to cloak Facebook’s involvement, and is referred to in some documentation as “Project Atlas” — a fitting name for Facebook’s effort to map new trends and rivals around the globe.

Even for Facebook, this is creepy.

Here’s what I don’t get about this story — aside from, of course, the parts that would make any reasonable person shudder. Facebook has been embroiled in unethical behaviours since its inception, but public interest has dramatically increased over the past couple of years. How is there still not a single person at this company pushing the stop button on anything that might seem creepy? Is that something that they are institutionally incapable of doing, or even recognizing in the first place?

As far as Apple’s action on this is concerned, I say that they should exercise their power over their platform by cancelling Facebook’s enterprise certificate and pulling their apps from the App Store. I’m not exaggerating. I’ve tried to reconcile Apple’s allowance of Facebook’s privacy-antagonistic practices in the App Store while preaching their strong stance on privacy; I still think that surveillance advertising needs to be reined in by legislation as opposed to individual actions by companies. In this case, though, Facebook is being openly hostile towards Apple’s policies. Smaller developers get turfed for less.

Update: Kurt Wagner, Recode:

Apple’s response, via a PR rep this morning: “We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.”

Translation: Apple won’t let Facebook distribute the app anymore.

I hope Facebook is on a very short leash.

Apple’s 2018 Report Card

Jason Snell, Six Colors:

It’s time for our annual look back on Apple’s performance during the past year, as seen through the eyes of writers, editors, developers, podcasters, and other people who spend an awful lot of time thinking about Apple.

This is the fourth year that I’ve presented this survey to a hand-selected group. They were prompted with 11 different Apple-related subjects, and asked to rate them on a scale from 1 to 5, as well as optionally provide text commentary on their vote. […]

Since I used the same survey as in previous years, I was able to track the change in my panel’s consensus opinion compared to the previous year.

This is one of my favourite perennial pieces. I think it’s the best assessment of Apple’s performance anywhere, and the panel’s commentary generally mimics my own. Overall, Apple’s new hardware — particularly the new Apple Watch — has generally shone in every area except reliability, software quality is up while service quality continues to be mixed, and Apple’s TV and home offerings continue to be, charitably, just getting started.

For what it’s worth, a few thoughts of my own:

  • I’ve just picked up an iMac to replace my 2012 MacBook Air. While Migration Assistant failed me twice,1 all of the iCloud stuff worked brilliantly. I spent a little time copying-and-pasting license keys from my MacBook Air to my iMac and that worked amazingly well. Also, I really love unlocking it with my Apple Watch.

    I usually favour a laptop and a large display to connect it to. But the reason I chose an iMac instead of one of the more recently-updated MacBook Pro models is primarily because the reputation of the keyboards in those models still has me spooked.

  • I’ve been using my Apple TV more but it’s basically a Netflix, Apple Music, and AirPlay box. If we weren’t such an Apple-centric household and were I not aware of how poorly every other company regards my privacy, I’m not sure what Apple’s option does so uniquely or even particularly well. Also, the Apple Music app isn’t very good.

  • I haven’t been able to write an iOS 12 review partly because I have been doing other things, but also because I haven’t found a way to make the depth of its bug fixes sound compelling. Despite this, it is an absolute joy. No, it isn’t free of bugs, but it’s back to being a smooth and fluid operating system — not just for new devices, but for most of the devices it’s supported on. I hope a similar level of polish is the baseline from now on.

  • Apple’s marketing around privacy can seem sanctimonious at times, but I appreciate that there’s still a big tech company that cares about that sort of thing.


  1. I am still at a loss to explain how it successfully copied my /usr/ folder, my Finder tags, all of my applications including a very old build of Coda 2, and a single folder in ~/Documents/ but missed everything else. ↩︎

Pillar to Post

Some news of interest primarily to readers in the Calgary area: Alex Moon and I are debuting new work in February at Emmedia Gallery. “Pillar to Post” comprises four new works that explore the corruptibility of our material and personal relationships through our ostensible connectedness.

The opening reception takes place this Friday from 7:00 PM until 10:00 PM. If you come, please introduce yourself.

Bugs in Group FaceTime Allow Callers to See and Hear Recipients’ End Without Them Answering

Nicole Nguyen, Buzzfeed News:

In a statement, an Apple spokesperson said the company is “aware of this issue and we have identified a fix that will be released in a software update later this week.”

In BuzzFeed News’ test, an iPhone X was used to initiate a FaceTime video call to a recipient using an iPhone 8. After following the instructions outlined by 9to5Mac, the iPhone X caller could hear audio from the iPhone 8’s microphone. After the call recipient pressed the volume-down button, footage from the iPhone 8’s front-facing camera could be seen on the iPhone X — even though the call recipient had not answered the call.

Apple’s iCloud system status page currently reports that Group FaceTime is offline — presumably either to halt the impact of this bug, or to try to fix it remotely. This is a pretty nasty bug nevertheless, and makes you wonder why a recipient’s iPhone would send any data to the server before they answer a call.

Update: The biggest concern here, for me, is that Apple’s product security team was apparently notified of this bug last week. The bug itself, while awful, leaves a trace so it’s not really a surreptitious spying tool. That’s not to excuse it. I’m just more concerned, if the report was credible, that the steps of pulling Group FaceTime offline and issuing an emergency patch were not made after this was first reported, because that suggests a procedural error. However, if the person who reported the general characteristics of the bug withheld information, particularly for financial compensation or a similar reason, that’s on them, and I can understand why immediate action wasn’t taken.

Update: John Meyer spoke with the mother of the kid who first publicly noticed this bug. The kid made a great demo video and the mother sent a notice via email, but was told to file a radar — not only did she do that, it was closed as a duplicate. It looks like Apple fell down in the reporting of this serious bug.

A Critical Reading of Mark Zuckerberg’s Wall Street Journal Op-Ed

Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch:

Thing is, no one is asking Facebook for perfection, Mark. We’re looking for signs that you and your company have a moral compass. Because the opposite appears to be true. (Or as one UK parliamentarian put it to your CTO last year: “I remain to be convinced that your company has integrity”.)

Facebook has scaled to such an unprecedented, global size exactly because it has no editorial values. And you say again now you want to be all things to all men. Put another way that means there’s a moral vacuum sucking away at your platform’s core; a supermassive ethical blackhole that scales ad dollars by the billions because you won’t tie the kind of process knots necessary to treat humans like people, not pairs of eyeballs.

You don’t design against negative consequences or to pro-actively avoid terrible impacts — you let stuff happen and then send in the ‘trust & safety’ team once the damage has been done.

You might call designing against negative consequences a ‘growth bottleneck’; others would say it’s having a conscience.

I don’t think it makes sense to make Facebook legally culpable for everything that is posted by users on their platform. There’s a good reason Section 230 was created, and I think FOSTA is unproductive and ultimately harmful. But while I don’t think fines and legal penalties should rain down on the company for jackass users’ contributions, I do think that Facebook should be morally responsible. It is clear to me that Facebook was blinded by its own massive growth that it couldn’t or didn’t want to handle community health problems, and instead focused on putting out PR fires. Zuckerberg’s Journal op-ed is another exercise in public relations — you can tell that it was largely written by lawyers and communications personnel rather than his own hand — and not anything truly meaningful.

For News, Something’s Got to Give

This week was absolutely heartbreaking to watch for news media. While employment statistics continued their ten-year improvement streak, several publications including Buzzfeed News and the Huffington Post initiated layoffs.

Paul Blest, Splinter:

The old excuses for why this keeps happening just won’t do anymore. People are still consuming news in large numbers. The right, which is reveling in the layoffs, has always hated journalism that doesn’t contort to its worldview, so the “people distrust the media” reason is bunk, too. We know what the real problem is: The unholy trinity of corporate greed and mismanagement, private equity bloodsuckers, and tech behemoths leeching ad money from news companies.

I’m skeptical of the phrasing of Blest’s last argument. I don’t think it’s so much that Google, et al., are leeching ad money so much as they have devalued advertising.

Whatever the case, today’s round of layoffs at Buzzfeed News was especially brutal. They fired enough great reporters and editors from key positions — the national desk and national security desk, in particular — to start a hard-hitting news organization of their own. I follow several Buzzfeed reporters on Twitter because of the blockbuster journalism that they’ve been producing for several years, and it’s hard to reconcile that with today’s layoffs. They are the paragon of success, except they somehow are not.

Facebook Knowingly Duped Game-Playing Kids and Their Parents Out of Money

Nathan Halverson, Reveal:

Facebook orchestrated a multiyear effort that duped children and their parents out of money, in some cases hundreds or even thousands of dollars, and then often refused to give the money back, according to court documents unsealed tonight in response to a Reveal legal action.

[…]

Sometimes the children did not even know they were spending money, according to another internal Facebook report. Facebook employees knew this. Their own reports showed underage users did not realize their parents’ credit cards were connected to their Facebook accounts and they were spending real money in the games, according to the unsealed documents.

For years, the company ignored warnings from its own employees that it was bamboozling children.

A team of Facebook employees even developed a method that would have reduced the problem of children being hoodwinked into spending money, but the company did not implement it, and instead told game developers that the social media giant was focused on maximizing revenues.

This story is staggering. Facebook had all the information they needed to be aware that children were racking up hundreds and even thousands of dollars in charges on their parents’ credit cards, and actively avoided doing anything about it. Anyone who has an ethical bone in their body would recognize that it is indefensible to encourage processes that prey on kids’ ignorance of how credit cards work. But Facebook, institutionally, does not have such a basic level of decency; they only saw dollar signs.

As I’ve previously written, I can’t make the argument that Facebook ought to be shut down, but I struggle to think of something of value that we would lose if that happened.

Facebook Looks to Create Integrated Infrastructure for WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger

Hannah Murphy and Hannah Kuchler, Financial Times:

Facebook is planning to link the messaging services of WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook Messenger into one encrypted system, in the first major push to integrate the services since the founders of both WhatsApp and Instagram left the business. 

[…]

Mr Zuckerberg wants to incorporate end-to-end encryption into all of the messaging services, meaning only people sending and receiving messages are able to view them. Only WhatsApp currently has end-to-end encryption as default.

[…]

While some privacy activists may welcome the plans, they could alarm law enforcement, who have already raised concerns that WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption enables criminals to communicate more easily and without detection, and also allows for the rapid spread of misinformation. 

I don’t know that any privacy activists are particularly thrilled about Facebook’s plan to have a gigantic pool of data entirely connected and inseparable on the back-end of three ostensibly different products. Also, it doesn’t make any sense why the last paragraph here ties rapidly-spreading misinformation to the availability of end-to-end encryption in WhatsApp.

A much more likely explanation for why Facebook would want to do this is to make it harder for an antitrust regulator to break the company up. Casey Newton:

Now if the government ever tries to force Facebook to spin off Instagram and WhatsApp, it can throw its hands up and protest that it’s ~actually~ all just one big app! Ruthless as ever.

Facebook has spent a great deal of time in pretty much every year of its existence trying to rebuild users’ trust after some catastrophe or another. The last couple of years, in particular, have been nothing but bad news for the company. Yet it continues to make decisions that are a constant fuck you to everyone outside of the company. What does it take for regulators to put a damper on their anticompetitive and exploitative practices?

Following YouTube’s Recommendations Down the Rabbit Hole

Caroline O’Donovan and Charlie Warzel, Buzzfeed News:

To better understand how Up Next discovery works, BuzzFeed News ran a series of searches on YouTube for news and politics terms popular during the first week of January 2019 (per Google Trends). We played the first result and then clicked the top video recommended by the platform’s Up Next algorithm. We made each query in a fresh search session with no personal account or watch history data informing the algorithm, except for geographical location and time of day, effectively demonstrating how YouTube’s recommendation operates in the absence of personalization.

[…]

One of the defining US political news stories of the first weeks of 2019 has been the partial government shutdown, now the longest in the country’s history. In searching YouTube for information about the shutdown between January 7 and January 11, BuzzFeed News found that the path of YouTube’s Up Next recommendations had a common pattern for the first few recommendations, but then tended to pivot from mainstream cable news outlets to popular, provocative content on a wide variety of topics.

After first recommending a few videos from mainstream cable news channels, the algorithm would often make a decisive but unpredictable swerve in a certain content direction. In some cases, that meant recommending a series of Penn & Teller magic tricks. In other cases, it meant a series of anti–social justice warrior or misogynist clips featuring conservative media figures like Ben Shapiro or the contrarian professor and author Jordan Peterson. In still other cases, it meant watching back-to-back videos of professional poker players, or late-night TV shows, or episodes of Lauren Lake’s Paternity Court.

I have all of YouTube’s personalization features switched off and I’m not signed in, so I’ve been seeing this same bizarre mix of Up Next recommendations for months now. In addition to the Peterson and Shapiro clips referenced above, I also get loads of Joe Rogan episodes and compilation-type videos of narrators reading Wikipedia over a photo slideshow. I don’t understand how YouTube’s recommendations work, but only a few clicks seems to separate a benign video from something conspiratorial, discriminatory and hateful, or wholly unrelated.

Daisuke Wakabayashi, New York Times:

After years of criticism that YouTube leads viewers to videos that spread misinformation, the company said it was changing what videos it recommends to users. In a blog post, YouTube said it would no longer suggest videos with “borderline content” or those that “misinform users in a harmful way” even if the footage does not violate its community guidelines.

YouTube said the number of videos affected by the policy change amounted to less than 1 percent of all videos on the platform. But given the billions of videos in YouTube’s library, it is still a large number.

Note that YouTube said that this applies to “less than one percent of content”, but they don’t say how often those videos are watched. If the view counts on many of the recommendations surfaced in Buzzfeed’s experiment are anything to go by, these videos are very popular. Would they have been nearly as popular if YouTube’s machine learning features did not frequently suggest them? I doubt it.

Proposed Changes to Chromium Would Restrict Ad Blockers

Thomas Claburn, the Register:

If the overhaul goes ahead, Adblock Plus and similar plugins that rely on basic filtering will, with some tweaks, still be able to function to some degree, unlike more ambitious extensions, such as uBlock Origin, which will be hit hard. The drafted changes will limit the capabilities available to extension developers, ostensibly for the sake of speed and safety. Chromium forms the central core of Google Chrome, and, soon, Microsoft Edge.

In a note posted Tuesday to the Chromium bug tracker, Raymond Hill, the developer behind uBlock Origin and uMatrix, said the changes contemplated by the Manifest v3 proposal will ruin his ad and content blocking extensions, and take control of content away from users.

Even though this change is probably not some transparently devious scheme to eradicate ad blockers in Chrome, one would think Google would want to do everything possible to avoid giving that impression. Especially, it should be noted, as Google is an advertising company, runs its own ad blocker, and — as pointed out by Julia Angwin — just recently prevailed in an antitrust inquiry in Germany over its coordination with Adblock Plus.

Amazon’s Wish List

Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance joined Chris Hayes this week on his “Why Is This Happening?” podcast to discuss Amazon’s history of shady business practices, and contrasting that with the convenience and cost savings that the company affords. I thought these two points Mitchell raised, in particular, were insightful:

They lost, in their first six years in business, they lost $3 billion, mostly losing money on books, which you talk to a local bookstore, they can’t lose money on books. They were not allowed to do that by the financial system. Why is it that Wall Street was willing to do that? A lot of it is because they saw this emergent monopoly.

[…]

It’s an incredible machine for concentrating wealth and having power over what happens. The implications are really profound because we’re moving from a situation in which traditional markets are open, they’re governed by public rules. That’s the nature of it. We decide who can participate in that market, there’s … At least there should be a level of equality and access. Amazon’s moving us to a situation in which the exchange of goods occurs in a private arena that it controls, it sets the rules for.

I think this is worth a listen, but there’s also a transcript if you’d prefer to read through it.

Satya Nadella Calls for Stronger Privacy Protections

Satya Nadella, in a video interview with Wall Street Journal editor in chief Matt Murray:

In fact, one striking thing is that digital companies now are not just tech companies. An agricultural business, to a retail business, to a health care business are all becoming first-right digital businesses. And that’s good news for our economy; it’s good news for the future.

The unintended consequences — let’s face it. There are three things that I feel we need to tackle. One is privacy. As the world becomes digitized — in particular, as the physical space itself is now embedded with computing — I think privacy is going to become a prime issue in our homes, in our work, in every place we go and visit.

And, so, we have to sort of deal with it as a human right. […] We in the tech industry; but, guess what? Every bank, every retailer, every health care company will also need to deal with privacy as a human right.

My focus here is on abuses of privacy primarily by “tech” companies like Google and Facebook, but strong and effective privacy legislation does not solely protect individuals from those companies. Ideal legislation would restrict how our data is used and shared by all kinds of businesses, and rein in some of the grossly-abusive marketplaces that sell data without our explicit permission.

Apple Announces ‘Shot on iPhone’ Contest With a Prize of Exposure

Apple PR:

Apple is kicking off 2019 by celebrating the most stunning photographs captured on iPhone, the world’s most popular camera, by inviting iPhone users to submit their best shots.

From January 22 to February 7, Apple is looking for outstanding photographs for a Shot on iPhone Challenge. A panel of judges will review worldwide submissions and select 10 winning photos, to be announced in February. The winning photos will be featured on billboards in select cities, Apple retail stores and online.

This contest sounds very cool: just tag your photos on social media, or email an image to Apple, and have it judged by a pretty spectacular panel for inclusion on billboards and Apple’s advertising campaigns. Wouldn’t you like to see one of your favourite photos on a forty-eight foot wide canvas? I certainly would.

But there is still a whiff of unpaid work about this. To be clear, this isn’t the entirely unethical “spec” work that is so common in creative professions, where a prospective client promises to compensate for commissioned work by crediting the professional or advising them that it’s a portfolio piece. Nevertheless, I think this still conveys the idea that creative work should somehow be valued differently than other forms of work. These photos are being used to advertise Apple’s products; at that point, I think they become as good as professional work and the individuals responsible should be paid.

Even if you feel that this is a contest solely for amateurs, this is a bad look that could have easily been averted. What’s it to Apple to offer the each of the winners an iPhone XS? It could even be more nominal than that — a set of iPhone camera lenses, for instance, or a an Apple Store gift card. I feel like any physical prize would make this contest feel more comfortable than its current incarnation: a request for royalty-free work for use in advertising.

Update: Apple will now pay licensing fees to winners which, I have learned, is more in line with the way they have previously treated “Shot on iPhone” images.

Google Considering Pulling News Service From Europe Due to Proposed Copyright Directive

Natalia Drozdiak, Bloomberg:

Google is considering pulling its Google News service from Europe as regulators work toward a controversial copyright law.

The European Union’s Copyright Directive will give publishers the right to demand money from the Alphabet Inc. unit, Facebook Inc. and other web platforms when fragments of their articles show up in news search results, or are shared by users. The law was supposed to be finalized this week but was delayed by disagreement among member states.

An alternative could be to display search results without excerpts, photos, or titles. To illustrate this, Google showed Search Engine Land what search results could look like based on their reading of the proposed copyright directive, and they are hysterical. I can’t imagine this will have any positive benefit for publishers or reporters, but it absolutely will have a negative effect for users.

An Experiment in Blocking Use of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft

Kashmir Hill, Gizmodo:

Maybe you’re in the camp of people who worry that these companies have too much access to our purchases, our movements, our social networks — and perhaps even our thoughts. Maybe you’re disturbed by the concentration of so much economic power in a handful of companies built on the West Coast’s [fault lines][fl]. Or maybe you want them to have less insight into your life so they have less sway over our society. But how? How do you reduce their power? Is it even possible?

The common retort to these concerns is that you should “just stop using their services.” So I decided to try.

In the first week, she tried blocking Amazon:

Amazon is not just an online store — that’s not even the hardest thing to cut out of my life. Its global empire also includes Amazon Web Services (AWS), the vast server network that provides the backbone for much of the internet, as well as Twitch.tv, the broadcasting behemoth that is the backbone of the online gaming industry, and Whole Foods, the organic backbone of the yuppie diet.

Keeping myself from walking into a Whole Foods is easy enough, but I also want to stop using any of Amazon’s digital services, from Amazon.com (and its damn app) to any other websites or apps that use AWS to host their content. To do that, I enlist the help of a technologist, Dhruv Mehrotra, who built me a custom VPN through which to route my internet requests. The VPN blocks any traffic to or from an IP address controlled by Amazon. I connect my computers and my phone to the VPN at all times, as well as all the connected devices in my home; it’s supposed to weed out every single digital thing that Amazon touches.

Ultimately, though, we found Amazon was too huge to conquer.

I think this is a fascinating project. I could give up Amazon’s online store for the rest of my life with little difficulty, but because the company’s long reach has gone largely unchecked, it’s now such an integral part of the internet that I don’t think it would be possible for me to forego everything that is dependent on their services. I find that pretty alarming.

How ‘Smart’ Technology Gets You to Continue Paying Long After Point of Sale

Matthew Braga, CBC News:

For consumers who are rightfully skeptical of how tech companies big and small are collecting, analyzing, and making money off their data — even in anonymized form — the sudden proliferation of these always-connected smart devices is concerning. But there’s a reason that everything from televisions to cars are suddenly getting smarter.

For consumers wondering why it might feel increasingly harder to buy something dumb or disconnected, the reason is partly technical. Some of the products users enjoy today wouldn’t be possible — or, as good — without a connection to the internet.

But it’s also about money. With product margins thinner than ever, more companies are either re-building their old hardware businesses around online subscriptions, or monetizing data from people who are using their products for free.

This makes complete sense to me as a justification for why Bluetooth and NFC chips are appearing in seemingly every household object. However, I feel like Braga’s article is less effective than it could be primarily because of its lede:

A common criticism of virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant is that they are always on, always listening, and always connected to the internet. It’s the only way they work.

This is what I meant when I linked to an excellent Axios piece about how it’s inaccurate to discuss “tech giants” in a monolithic way. Braga writes about Siri in the same breath as Alexa and Google’s Assistant, but doesn’t mention it at all throughout the rest of the piece, nor how Apple’s approach is different than the others. As suggested by the large quote above, Apple’s subscription-based products are becoming an increasingly important part of its business, but the concerns about privacy and data selling do not apply to the same degree that they do for Amazon, Google, or Facebook. I’m not defending Apple because they’re Apple and I am either being paid, or am on a favourable PR list or something — I am neither. I just think it’s important to be clear about how these tech companies are different. This article would have been so much more effective if it pointed out that Siri and Alexa appear to do similar things in similar ways, but are vastly different behind the scenes, but that discussion just isn’t there.

Comcast’s NBCUniversal to Launch Streaming Service

Kenneth Li and Sonam Rai, Reuters:

Comcast’s NBCUniversal will launch a streaming media service in early 2020 under a pricing model that seeks to mollify traditional pay TV providers while going after a market dominated by Netflix Inc and Amazon.com Inc.

The advertising-supported service, announced on Monday, will be available at no cost to NBCUniversal’s pay TV subscribers in the United States and eventually across the globe.

Who could have seen that, without net neutrality laws, Comcast would seek to use its dominant position in the low-competition internet service provider market to unfairly prioritize media assets it acquired in a way that other streaming services cannot because they are not owned by a major broadband provider?

Oh, right:

Consider that Comcast is working on a Netflix competitor, and that they also own NBCUniversal. It’s not hard to imagine an environment in which Comcast charges Netflix an extremely high rate to carry NBCUniversal TV shows and movies while also requiring Netflix to pay to be in their “fast lane” of internet service.

Comcast could also conceivably offer their streaming service at a reduced rate, or not count it against monthly bandwidth caps. In 2014, Kate Cox of the Consumerist reported that there were plenty of well-populated regions in the United States where Comcast had no broadband competition. As of last year, around 78% of Americans had a choice of zero or one provider for broadband of 25 Mbps or higher. In regions where Comcast is the only option, they could choose to offer NBC and MSNBC at a reduced rate on the web, but charge higher prices to view CNN or Fox News. If you didn’t like this, you could lodge an FTC complaint; but, as long as your ISP were being transparent about these practices, it wouldn’t be deceptive and may not even necessarily be predatory.

I’m not so deluded to think that I was the only one to foresee this, of course; a move like this one was clear to anyone who watched Comcast’s takeover of NBC Universal. The FCC required Comcast to abide by dozens of unique rules as a condition of their acquisition of NBC Universal, but those rules expired last year. To be clear: there is no evidence that Comcast is charging Netflix a newly-increased rate to carry its service at the same speed as, say, Hulu, but they will implicitly charge subscribers more to use Netflix than their own service.

Google Fined For GDPR Violation by French Data Protection Watchdog

Alex Hern, the Guardian:

The French data protection watchdog CNIL has fined Google a record €50m (£44m) for failing to provide users with transparent and understandable information on its data use policies.

For the first time, the company was fined using new terms laid out in the pan-European general data protection regulation. The maximum fine for large companies under the new law is 4% of annual turnover, meaning the theoretical maximum fine for Google is almost €4bn.

The fine was levied, CNIL said, because Google made it too difficult for users to find essential information, “such as the data-processing purposes, the data storage periods or the categories of personal data used for the ads personalisation”, by splitting them across multiple documents, help pages and settings screens.

That lack of clarity meant that users were effectively unable to exercise their right to opt out of data-processing for personalisation of ads.

Laws like these are no good without enforcement, so this fine is important if for no other reason than to reiterate that the E.U. intends to follow through. But, much like the fines being considered for Facebook in the United States, this is a relatively small fine for a company like Google. I’m not necessarily saying that this fine should have been larger; it is a first offence under this law, after all.

Also, I sincerely hope CNIL next goes after Criteo, a major French adtech firm. Navigating its website past the homepage automatically opts users into receiving cookies for highly-relevant retargeting purposes, which is prohibited under GDPR, and opt-out settings are buried in the website’s privacy policy.

FTC Close to Ending Its Facebook Investigation

Cecilia Kang, New York Times:

The Federal Trade Commission is in the advanced stages of its investigation into whether Facebook violated privacy rules and is expected to seek large fines from the company, according to two people familiar with the inquiry.

[…]

The highest financial penalty imposed on a tech company was Google’s $22 million settlement in 2012 for privacy violations. In the December meeting, the commissioners discussed a higher fine for Facebook, the people said.

John D. McKinnon, Wall Street Journal:

The FTC has been probing whether Facebook violated terms of an earlier consent decree when data of tens of millions of its users was transferred to Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that did work for the campaign of President Trump.

News of the investigation’s status was first reported by Tony Romm and Elizabeth Dwoskin for the Washington Post.

So far in its current fiscal year, Facebook has made over $17 billion in profit before taxes. The company will announce its fourth quarter results at the end of the month; typically, that’s its biggest quarter. A fine of approximately the same size as was paid by Google is simply a business expense for a company with a bank account like Facebook’s. Hitting them hard in the pocketbook with a fine in the hundreds of millions of dollars might produce long-lasting change, but I’m not optimistic. There’s just too much money to be made when every data point collected on individuals has value, and there are few restrictions on how it may be acquired or used. This industry needs to be regulated.

How Secrecy Fuels Tech Paranoia

John Herrman, New York Times:

The biggest internet platforms are businesses built on asymmetric information. They know far more about their advertising, labor and commerce marketplaces than do any of the parties participating in them. We can guess, but can’t know, why we were shown a friend’s Facebook post about a divorce, instead of another’s about a child’s birth. We can theorize, but won’t be told, why YouTube thinks we want to see a right-wing polemic about Islam in Europe after watching a video about travel destinations in France. Everything that takes place within the platform kingdoms is enabled by systems we’re told must be kept private in order to function. We’re living in worlds governed by trade secrets. No wonder they’re making us all paranoid.

This was published a day after an op-ed in Wired theorized that the “2009 vs 2019” comparison really exists to teach artificial intelligence how human ageing works. I think that piece is utter nonsense, but I get where that sentiment comes from.

Jack Dorsey Has No Clue What He Wants

Ashley Feinberg of the Huffington Post interviewed Jack Dorsey recently, and came away with the titular conclusion:

In other words, the most the CEO of Twitter was able to tell me about specific steps being taken to solve the rampant, site-wide harassment problem that’s plagued the platform for years is that they’re looking into maybe making the report button a little bigger, eventually.

Or consider later, when I asked whether Trump tweeting an explicit call for murder would be grounds for removal. Just as he seemed about to answer what seemed like an easy question, he caught himself. “That would be a violent threat,” he started. “We’d definitely … You know we’re in constant communication with all governments around the world. So we’d certainly talk about it.”

They would certainly talk about it.

Feinberg’s question is, of course, questioning Twitter’s rules at their limits. But it’s baffling that something so clearly beyond the realm of what Twitter should support prompts such an uncertain and confused answer from Dorsey.

The rest of this interview is more of the same.

Pew: 74% of Facebook Users Have No Idea How Its Ads Work

Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch:

Pew found three-quarters (74%) of Facebook users did not know the social networking behemoth maintains a list of their interests and traits to target them with ads, only discovering this when researchers directed them to view their Facebook ad preferences page.

A majority (51%) of Facebook users also told Pew they were uncomfortable with Facebook compiling the information.

While more than a quarter (27%) said the ad preference listing Facebook had generated did not very or at all accurately represent them.

This is one reason why I think a legislative approach is critical to protecting user privacy. Users don’t know how these things work because Facebook buries the truth and its handful of privacy controls in abstruse language beneath layers of menus and controls. They have reached the size where there simply isn’t any incentive for them to be more transparent, and existing regulatory agencies are either unwilling or unable to take action.

Tim Cook’s Time Magazine Editorial on Privacy

Tim Cook in Time:

Meaningful, comprehensive federal privacy legislation should not only aim to put consumers in control of their data, it should also shine a light on actors trafficking in your data behind the scenes. Some state laws are looking to accomplish just that, but right now there is no federal standard protecting Americans from these practices. That’s why we believe the Federal Trade Commission should establish a data-broker clearinghouse, requiring all data brokers to register, enabling consumers to track the transactions that have bundled and sold their data from place to place, and giving users the power to delete their data on demand, freely, easily and online, once and for all.

Setting aside the actual point of this essay — which, by the way, is an excellent summary of why privacy legislation for user data is sorely needed — something that’s kind of interesting is how it reads in a very Tim Cook kind of way. Much as Steve Jobs had a unique voice in both his speaking and writing, so, too, does Cook. It doesn’t feel like it’s an essay produced by some copywriter to which Cook’s name is later affixed; it’s clear to me that this is something that truly matters to him, and which he probably wrote himself.

Nilay Patel linked to the essay on Twitter and attached a screenshot of the top apps in the App Store, clarifying in a reply:

The iPhone’s value is built on these services. Pushing for a law is great, but it is telling that they won’t use their own platform dominance to forbid these practices.

“These services” refers to apps like Gmail and Instagram, both of which are run by companies that show virtually no respect for users’ privacy. This seems to come up frequently in conversations about Apple, and it’s something lots of people mention, so I don’t mean to single out Patel here. But I think it’s a horribly lazy take.

Can you imagine the scale of the shit fit that would be thrown if Apple completely prohibited apps from Google and Facebook in the App Store? Not just from users, either: tech publications, mainstream newspapers, and regulators would be apoplectic, given the obvious antitrust questions that would likely be provoked by this kind of power move.

For what it’s worth, Apple has strict guidelines on the collection and use of users’ data. These rules require that developers collect opt-in permission, prohibit apps from requiring personal data unless it’s necessary for the app’s core functionality, and encourage minimization of data collection overall. That’s not to say the company is perfect. For example, you cannot post photos to an Instagram story if you’ve denied microphone access to Instagram, despite Apple’s developer guidelines using basically this scenario as a prohibited example. I wish Apple were stricter in enforcing the rules they already have, but their reluctance to create a PR and antitrust catastrophe is understandable.

In general, however, enforcement of online privacy should not be Apple’s job. Cook is right in stating that this should be dealt with in policy, not on individual companies’ terms. Frankly, Apple’s ability to use privacy as a differentiating characteristic is embarrassing for the tech industry and its regulators. Users should not have to be wary of compromising their privacy or worried that they will lose control over their personal details every time they use a tech product, an app, or a website.

Website Subscriptions Are Not Dead

Colin Devroe (via Brent Simmons):

This isn’t the first nor the last article to cover the creation of the RSS standard, its rise to relative popularity with Google Reader, and its subsequent fall from popularity.

But the big point that many of these articles dismiss lightly or directly omit is that RSS is still used as the underpinnings of so many widely popular services today. Apple News, Google News, Flipboard (each with likely tens of millions of users or more) and many others use RSS it is just that people do not know it.

We should likely stop talking about RSS. We need to simply start calling RSS “Subscribing”. “Subscribe to my blog” is the only thing we need to say.

Most users don’t care about the underlying technology; Devroe is right in that sense. However, while RSS may be succeeding in developers’ terms, subscription options should be more visible for users — ideally at the system level. The kind of users who aren’t necessarily aware of the format aren’t going to poke around for software to read feeds with.

In regions where Apple News is available — the U.S., U.K., and Australia — iOS and MacOS will handle RSS subscriptions more-or-less gracefully. Elsewhere, however, the system just doesn’t know what to do with the feed URL if you do not have an RSS reader installed, and will offer to send you to the App Store to download a feed reader using a link that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t work.

Signal v. Noise Leaves Medium

David Heinemeier Hansson:

When we moved over, Medium was all about attracting big blogs and other publishers. This was going to be a new space for a new time where publishers could find a home. And it was. For a while.

These days Medium is focused on their membership offering, though. Trying to aggregate writing from many sources and sell a broad subscription on top of that. And it’s a neat model, and it’s wonderful to see Medium try something different. But it’s not for us, and it’s not for Signal v Noise.

[…]

That doesn’t mean we regret our time at Medium. Being on Medium helped propel some of our best writing to a whole new audience. But these days there’s less of a “what Medium is doing for us”, and a whole lot more of “what we’re doing for Medium”. It was a good time while it lasted, but good times are gone.

It was just a few years ago that a bunch of publications were enticed by Medium to migrate their websites; now, nearly all of them have left the platform. I say good riddance; if you take your writing seriously, you should have as much control over it as possible.1

Update: Manton Reece:

Medium.com was swinging in the wrong direction, especially with the change last year to no longer allow custom domain names. I think 2019 is going to be a great year for blogging.

I think so, too.


  1. This, by the way, is exactly why I have misgivings about video on the web. Any cheap hosting is good enough for a blog, and even moderately-priced hosting could work for a podcast. But hosting video files requires far more robust hosting and bandwidth; that’s why there’s basically only one hugely-popular video platform on the web. YouTube’s monopoly is not healthy for creators or the open web. ↩︎

In Europe, the New York Times Switched From Ad Exchanges to Direct Selling, and Grew Revenue

Jessica Davies, Digiday:

When the General Data Protection Regulation arrived last year, The New York Times didn’t take any chances.

The publisher blocked all open-exchange ad buying on its European pages, followed swiftly by behavioral targeting. Instead, NYT International focused on contextual and geographical targeting for programmatic guaranteed and private marketplace deals and has not seen ad revenues drop as a result, according to Jean-Christophe Demarta, svp for global advertising at New York Times International.

[…]

The New York Times has 2.9 million paying digital subscribers globally, and 15 percent of the publisher’s digital news subscribers are from Europe. Digital advertising in Europe also remains an important revenue stream for the publisher. The publisher’s reader-revenue business model means it fiercely guards its readers’ user experience. Rather than bombard readers with consent notices or risk a clunky consent user experience, it decided to drop behavioral advertising entirely.

It’s worth noting that there are few web properties with the brand clout of the New York Times. Direct selling may not be a realistic solution for all websites — including, I should say, this one. There should be a more direct relationship between the publisher and the advertiser, while still preserving editorial independence. Where direct selling is not viable, ad exchanges should exist that carefully vet ads and are not dependent on behavioural targeting; the Deck was ahead of its time.

But this report demonstrates that third parties are still interested in buying advertising, even when they can’t have their adtech toys. That’s great news. Let’s have more of this.

Ajit Pai Refuses to Brief Lawmakers Over Phone-Tracking Scandal, Dubiously Blames Shutdown

Dell Cameron, Gizmodo:

In a letter to the FCC chairman last week, [Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr.] said it was paramount his committee investigate the matter at once and that it could not wait “until President Trump decides to reopen the government.” However, committee members said on Monday that Pai had declined to brief them citing the shutdown, while asserting (in Pallone’s words) that the matter was “not a threat to the safety of human life or property.”

Neither Pai nor his chief of staff, Matthew Berry, placed the call notifying Pallone’s office of his refusal, according to a senior Democratic aide, who said the news came instead from a lower-level staffer.

Pallone responded to Pai’s decision in a statement, saying, “There’s nothing in the law that should stop the Chairman personally from meeting about this serious threat that could allow criminals to track the location of police officers on patrol, victims of domestic abuse, or foreign adversaries to track military personnel on American soil.”

American telecom companies must be thrilled to have a key regulator who has no sense of urgency to do his job, nor any compulsion to hold their feet to the fire.

Apple Releases Smart Battery Cases for iPhone XS, XS Max, and XR

Last time Apple did a battery case, it only worked with the 4.7-inch iPhone 7. The battery life claims for this one on the two larger iPhone models, in particular, are ridiculous. Juli Clover, MacRumors:

Each case provides a varying amount of battery life depending on device. The iPhone XS Battery Case, when paired with the iPhone XS, offers up to 33 hours of talk time, up to 21 hours of internet use, and up to 25 hours of video playback.

The iPhone XS Max with the XS Max Smart Battery Case offers up to 37 hours of talk time, up to 20 hours of internet use, and up to 25 hours of video playback.

The iPhone XR with the XR Battery Case offers up to 39 hours of talk time, up to 22 hours of internet use, and up to 27 hours of video playback.

If you travel a lot, this might just be the quickest purchase you make. Curiously, the iPhone X is not officially supported by the iPhone XS case; I wonder if it’s just a slight difference in the size of the camera cutout — which, I bet, would be trivial to work around — or if there’s some other compatibility roadblock.

Update: Rene Ritchie says that the iPhone X fits in the XS case, more or less, but there are mixed reports about its functionality.

DuckDuckGo Integrates Apple’s MapKit for Location Searches

DuckDuckGo’s press release:

We’re excited to announce that map and address-related searches on DuckDuckGo for mobile and desktop are now powered by Apple’s MapKit JS framework, giving you a valuable combination of mapping and privacy. As one of the first global companies using Apple MapKit JS, we can now offer users improved address searches, additional visual features, enhanced satellite imagery, and continually updated maps already in use on billions of Apple devices worldwide.

With this updated integration, Apple Maps are now available both embedded within our private search results for relevant queries, as well as available from the “Maps” tab on any search result page.

For years, the default choice for developers embedding a map on a website was to use one of Google’s. There have been a couple of alternatives — OpenStreetMap isn’t bad — but none seem like they could shake Google’s dominance quite like Apple’s MapKit JavaScript framework. It’s early days; Apple does not yet have a Maps website where users can easily create custom map embeds, for example. But, for developers, the MapKit framework is a viable choice. It looks great, the data quality really is getting better — albeit very slowly — and it respects users’ privacy.

It’s very cool to see DuckDuckGo as the first major implementation of this framework. I search the web almost exclusively with DuckDuckGo, but one area where it struggled for me was for business searches around me. Because I often forget that I even have a Maps app on my Mac, I would habitually load Google Maps. I should have to do that far less often now.

One thing I noticed is that, while DuckDuckGo’s integration makes use of MapKit everywhere, Apple Maps directions are only available when searching on iOS. I’m not sure if there’s a technical limitation involved; it appears that MapKit’s route API would work fine to return driving directions on the web. Perhaps it’s simply a case of DuckDuckGo not wishing to ask users for their precise location as a privacy measure. I get that, but offloading the task to Bing Maps, by default, for non-iOS users is kind of a clunky workaround.

Bear with me, but, speaking of Google Maps, what the hell happened to that website? At some point, basically everything became a click target, from businesses to neighbourhood names. But Google Maps has also retained the double-click-to-zoom gesture, so every time I try to zoom in, I invariably click on something, which causes that information panel I hid seconds prior to reappear with the hours for a business I don’t care about. In particularly dense cities, using Google Maps requires finding a ten-by-ten pixel square that miraculously does not contain a clickable object.

The only thing I use Google Maps for on a frequent basis is Street View, and they’ve even managed to make that worse. There are so many Photo Sphere images and indoor tours that overlap with Google’s own Street View. It’s a usability nightmare. I can’t imagine a typical Street View user wants to stumble into a grainy immobile snow globe submitted by someone with half their finger on the camera lens.

Update: I got two things wrong on this. The first is that the Directions button connects to Apple Maps on both iOS and MacOS; when I tried it this morning on my Mac, it only displayed the dropdown with options for Bing and other providers. Also, apparently, DuckDuckGo will prompt for a precise location for some queries — though I haven’t been able to trigger the location request dialog — so a reluctance to ask for location can’t be the reason they haven’t implemented the route API.

iTunes Movies and TV Shows Kremlinology

Call it whatever you like — good logic, Kremlinology, or wishful thinking — but this theory from MG Siegler, about the clumsily-named “iTunes Movies and TV Shows” feature coming to Samsung TVs, makes a whole lot of sense to me.

A quick, related thought: imagine Apple does introduce a Netflix-competitive streaming video subscription; and, perhaps, a news subscription, too. A user may well subscribe to both, plus Apple Music, iCloud, and — perhaps — be on the iPhone upgrade plan, too. That’s a lot of discrete monthly payments. A universal subscription that covers, at the very least, all of Apple’s services would be far more elegant; I’d love to see that.

Talking About Big Tech Monolithically Is Missing the Big, More Complex Picture

David McCabe and Scott Rosenberg, Axios:

For several years it has made sense, in some quarters, to lump together the tech giants — chiefly Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon, sometimes also including Netflix or Microsoft. But talking about “big tech” is beginning to offer diminishing returns.

[…]

As different pressures come to bear on each of these companies, they are likely to end up taking roads that differentiate them from their competitors — and make “big tech” less useful as an idea or a category.

A suspicion I’ve long harboured is that the bad actors in the tech industry make it much harder to trust any company. I know a few people who refuse to use Touch ID or Face ID on their devices because they’re convinced that their fingerprints and faces are being sent to Apple. The company is also increasingly focused on health, which makes some people skittish. And there’s a fair reason for that; users should be cautious about which companies they’re sharing their most personal details with.

Yet sales of in-home devices from Amazon and Google — with microphones and, in many cases, cameras — are up every year. User tracking is becoming more pervasive and difficult to avoid, and huge data brokers aggregate even more information but are not household names. In a survey last year, more people believe Amazon and Google care about user privacy than Apple. This situation is getting worse, not better, and it is eroding confidence that any part of the tech industry can be good.

The last time the tech industry was the subject of widespread worries about trust was in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA disclosures. This isn’t external; it can’t be smoothed over by denials or press releases bragging about how secure the databases are. This is internal, and it has effects throughout the industry on good actors and bad. But this discussion needs a greater level of specificity and nuance.

Sources Say Amazon Ring Home Security Videos Were Stored Unencrypted and Were Widely-Accessible Internally

Matt Drange and Reed Albergotti, reporting last month for the Information:

But former employees said that wasn’t always the case, and that when the Kiev office was launched, customer videos were widely shared there. It couldn’t be learned when Ring began to restrict this access. Ring’s terms of service don’t inform customers who opt in to the community watch feature that their videos are used for image-recognition research. Mr. Siminoff said he believed Ring’s disclosures to customers were sufficient.

Ring has had other issues with security. As The Information reported earlier this year, a software flaw allowed former users of shared accounts to continue to view doorbell video.

Ring has added additional security measures since being acquired by Amazon in April. Employees in Ukraine are no longer allowed to download and store videos on their computers, for example. An Amazon spokeswoman didn’t respond to questions about security measures, or what due diligence the company conducted prior to acquiring Ring.

Sam Biddle, reporting today for the Intercept:

At the time the Ukrainian access was provided, the video files were left unencrypted, the source said, because of Ring leadership’s “sense that encryption would make the company less valuable,” owing to the expense of implementing encryption and lost revenue opportunities due to restricted access. The Ukraine team was also provided with a corresponding database that linked each specific video file to corresponding specific Ring customers.

At the same time, the source said, Ring unnecessarily provided executives and engineers in the U.S. with highly privileged access to the company’s technical support video portal, allowing unfiltered, round-the-clock live feeds from some customer cameras, regardless of whether they needed access to this extremely sensitive data to do their jobs. For someone who’d been given this top-level access — comparable to Uber’s infamous “God mode” map that revealed the movements of all passengers — only a Ring customer’s email address was required to watch cameras from that person’s home. Although the source said they never personally witnessed any egregious abuses, they told The Intercept “if [someone] knew a reporter or competitor’s email address, [they] could view all their cameras.” The source also recounted instances of Ring engineers “teasing each other about who they brought home” after romantic dates. Although the engineers in question were aware that they were being surveilled by their co-workers in real time, the source questioned whether their companions were similarly informed.

Davey Alba, of Buzzfeed, on Twitter:

We reported on Orlando PD’s use of Amazon Rekognition in October & discovered Orlando had made a deal with Ring to crowdsource footage from the app. When we asked, Amazon would not commit to keep the data generated by Ring and by Rekognition separate.

Let’s be charitable here: Amazon, at the very least, acquired a company with poor security practices that sells cameras for use inside customers’ homes.

I don’t have any “internet of things” devices — partly because I’m not really able to replace the thermostat or electrical outlets in my rented apartment, and partly because I don’t want to deal with more software updates. But the security and privacy concerns with these kinds of devices are very real, and should not be underestimated. Consumers should have the confidence that buying one of these products will not make their homes less secure or private in exchange for a marginal gain in efficiency.

After Vice Report, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon Say Again They Will Stop Selling Location Data

Two days after Joseph Cox reported that the real-time location of virtually every phone in the United States could be bought with few restrictions, Hamza Shaban and Brian Fung are reporting for the Washington Post that three providers have said that they would stop selling customers’ location data to third parties:

AT&T had already suspended its data sharing agreements with a number of so-called “location aggregators” last year in light of a congressional probe finding that some of Verizon’s location data was being misused by prison officials to spy on innocent Americans. AT&T also said at the time it would be maintaining those of its agreements that provided clear consumer benefits, such as location sharing for roadside assistance services.

But AT&T’s announcement Thursday goes much further, pledging to terminate all of the remaining deals it had — even the ones that it said were actively helpful.

[…]

In characteristic fashion, T-Mobile chief executive John Legere tweeted Tuesday that his firm would be “completely ending location aggregator work” in March. Verizon said in a statement Thursday that it, too, was winding down its four remaining location-sharing agreements, which are all with roadside assistance services — after that, customers would have to give the company permission to share their data with roadside assistance firms. A Sprint spokeswoman didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Legere said last year that T-Mobile would “not sell customer location data to shady middlemen” and promised to “wind down” agreements to share location data. In communications to U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, AT&T and Verizon also promised to stop selling location data last year. Without legislation and enforcement, I doubt shady practices like these will stop.

Facing Slowdown in China, Samsung Copies Apple

Kenichi Yamada, Nikkei Asian Review:

Samsung Electronics’ disappointing fourth-quarter earnings report comes less than a week after Apple cut its revenue estimate, underlining the global repercussions of the Chinese economic slowdown.

Both of the South Korean company’s core businesses — memory chips and smartphones — are facing downturns this year. With no other growth business to fill the hole, Samsung finds itself scrambling to trim the fat.

Samsung said Tuesday that operating profit plunged 29% in the three months ended in December, to 10.8 trillion won ($9.6 billion). The preliminary guidance represents the company’s worst quarter since July-September 2016, with the drop exceeding analyst expectations by 2 trillion won to 3 trillion won.

That second quoted paragraph is particularly interesting: Samsung is doubly exposed because it makes its own consumer electronics and sells components for other companies’ products.

Anyway, it wouldn’t surprise me to see reports like these from several other companies in the coming weeks.

European Regulators Try to Rein in Data Brokers

Aliya Ram and Madhumita Murgia, Financial Times:

Data brokers mine a treasure trove of personal, locational and transactional data to paint a picture of an individual’s life. Tastes in books or music, hobbies, dating preferences, political or religious leanings, and personality traits are all packaged and sold by data brokers to a range of industries, chiefly banks and insurers, retailers, telecoms, media companies and even governments. The European Commission forecasts the data market in Europe could be worth as much as €106.8bn by 2020. 

“The explosive growth of online data has led to the emergence of the super data broker — the ‘privacy deathstars’, such as Oracle, Nielsen and Salesforce, that provide one-stop shopping for hundreds of different data points which can be added into a single person’s file,” says Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy based in Washington. “As a result, everyone now is invisibly attached to a living, breathing database that tracks their every move.”

Over the past five years, the data broker industry expanded aggressively in what amounted to a virtual regulatory vacuum. The rise of internet-connected devices has fuelled an enhanced industry of “cross-device tracking” that matches people’s data collected from across their smartphones, tablets, televisions and other connected devices. It can also connect people’s behaviours in the real world with what they are doing online. 

The reluctance in virtually every country to restrict the purchase and sharing of user data without explicit consent is a complete regulatory failure. Nobody would tolerate someone asking them to submit a list daily of everything they’ve bought, every page they’ve seen online, every ad they’ve viewed, and everywhere they’ve been — not because that would be a lot of work, but because it would feel invasive. There shouldn’t be a “data market” at all.

Dates and Times With Siri

I love this collection of examples by Dr. Drang of how Siri handles date and time questions. In some instances, its understanding of context is remarkably good; in a few, it’s disappointing. The key point, for me, is something Drang writes at the end:

The upshot is that Siri can be good at date and time math, but it needs the right syntax. Not surprising for a computer program, but not how Siri has been promoted by Apple.

I was chatting with a friend about this. Make no mistake: Siri is far better at parsing different variations of sentence construction than traditional voice control systems. But users must still learn some syntactical tricks to ensure Siri understands the precise intention and context of what is being said.

I also wonder how much of this is because of the English language; many other languages create more rigorously-structured sentences.

Vice Investigation Reveals Obtaining Real-Time Smartphone Location Data Has Virtually No Oversight

Joseph Cox, Vice:

Nervously, I gave a bounty hunter a phone number. He had offered to geolocate a phone for me, using a shady, overlooked service intended not for the cops, but for private individuals and businesses. Armed with just the number and a few hundred dollars, he said he could find the current location of most phones in the United States.

The bounty hunter sent the number to his own contact, who would track the phone. The contact responded with a screenshot of Google Maps, containing a blue circle indicating the phone’s current location, approximate to a few hundred metres.

Queens, New York. More specifically, the screenshot showed a location in a particular neighborhood — just a couple of blocks from where the target was. The hunter had found the phone (the target gave their consent to Motherboard to be tracked via their T-Mobile phone.)

The bounty hunter did this all without deploying a hacking tool or having any previous knowledge of the phone’s whereabouts. Instead, the tracking tool relies on real-time location data sold to bounty hunters that ultimately originated from the telcos themselves, including T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint, a Motherboard investigation has found. These surveillance capabilities are sometimes sold through word-of-mouth networks.

Dell Cameron, Gizmodo:

The story follows reporting last year by the New York Times, which kicked off after Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat and privacy hawk of Oregon, revealed the existence of this dubious location-data trade in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission. Through this, we learned about Securus Technologies, a company that profits off inmate phone calls and secretly provided phone-tracking services to low-level law enforcement without so much as a court order.

Securus and other companies, such as those described in Tuesday’s Motherboard story, rely on loose regulations around the aggregation of location data, which can be bought and sold legally for marketing purposes, among other types of services. Numerous companies appear to be exploiting this loophole to quietly offer location services for unsanctioned uses on the cheap, or are otherwise contributing unwittingly through their own negligence to a prosperous underground market.

Let’s set aside the truly diabolical lack of ethics for a moment because there’s something else nagging at me. For the past couple of years, the general public has started to become wise to the privacy nightmare created by companies like Facebook and Google. Frequently, this is expressed by the claim that these companies are “selling users’ data”. That’s wrong — they’re selling advertisements against enormous dossiers of data points — but it has stuck nevertheless as a symbol of how untrustworthy these companies are.

T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint apparently want to be more untrustworthy than Facebook and Google when it comes to user data. They’re not just selling ads; they’re selling the location itself. That’s fucked. I read through T-Mobile’s many end-user contracts today and couldn’t find anything that clearly says you give us permission to sell a third-party the location of your phone in association with its number. Maybe it’s buried in there, translated into some abstruse legalese. But can you imagine having an abject lack of ethics that you could think selling user location is totally fine?

What Facebook Knows About Each User

Ina Fried, Axios:

Facebook’s privacy policies reinforce the message that “you have control over who sees what you share on Facebook.” But if you use Facebook at all, you don’t have much control over what Facebook itself sees about you.

I love stuff like this because it puts into plain terms the dizzying scope of Facebook’s entrenchment. The vast majority of the information Facebook collects seems specific to users, but plenty of data points on non-users are also collected without their consent.

Now do Google.

Personalized Apple Music 2018 Summary Shortcut

Federico Viticci created an impressive Shortcut to allow anyone to create a personalized report of their year of listening on Apple Music:

When Spotify was my music streaming service of choice, one of the features I really liked was its personalized Wrapped report generated at the end of the year. I’ve always been a fan of geeky annual reports and stats about the usage of any given web service – be it Spotify, Pocket, or Toggl. I appreciate a detailed look at 12 months of collected data to gain some insight into my habits and patterns.

I’ve always been annoyed by the lack of a similar feature in Apple Music; I’m surprised that Apple still hasn’t added a native “Year in Review” option – a baffling omission given how the company is already collecting all of the necessary data points in the cloud. Official “Apple Music Wrapped” functionality would bolster the service’s catalog of personalized features, providing users with a “reward” at the end of the year in the form of reports and playlists to help them rediscover what they listened to over the past year.

This is remarkable, and — as Viticci writes near the end of this — pushes the limits of what Shortcuts will allow. It’s basically a non-interactive app and it is extraordinarily sophisticated. If you’re an Apple Music user, you should give it a shot.

Viticci’s Shortcut reveals a few things that need to be refined in Shortcuts and Apple Music. He details memory and functionality limits in both, but one thing I’ve noticed in my copy of Shortcuts is that the library tab quickly becomes overwhelming on the iPhone because of its fixed two-column grid. I would love to see a better way to organize my library. Also, administration headaches aside, I wish users could submit Shortcuts for the gallery.

The Future of the Apple TV in Light of This Samsung Deal

Kirk McElhearn:

Hell is freezing over for Apple because the company has finally accepted that it cannot make enough money from its video offerings just with Apple devices (ie, the iPhone, iPad, and Apple TV). This also suggests that the Apple TV has seen its last iteration. If Apple can put the same apps on any smart TV – which is, of course, not complicated – why have a separate device? I suspect we’ll also see an Apple Music app on these TVs before long (as is already the case for Android phones and tablets).

It makes sense to me that Apple would bring its services to other platforms — partly for, as McElhearn alluded to, financial reasons; but, also, because it has the rather lovely side effect of confirming that Apple is becoming a true services company for more than Apple product owners.

But I am not sure that necessarily leads to the end of the Apple TV. I don’t see the company abandoning dedicated hardware just because it has a services business, even for a presently lower-priority product like the Apple TV. It seems to me that it’s more likely that Apple’s TV product may morph to become a full television that they have complete control over. Why not? Most televisions look awfully cheap and are privacy nightmares.

Samsung, LG, and Vizio Announce Apple Services Compatibility

Yesterday, Samsung announced that Apple’s iTunes movies and TV shows apps would be coming to their smart TVs, along with AirPlay 2 and HomeKit compatibility. Vizio and LG followed that up today by announcing that they would also be supporting AirPlay 2 and HomeKit.

Nilay Patel of the Verge asks some good questions about these partnerships:

Is Apple going to allow Samsung’s smart TV tracking to snoop on iTunes viewers? Smart TVs are notorious for tracking what people watch, but Apple’s entire brand is privacy. What usage data will Samsung see from the iTunes app? Update: Answered, for now: Apple tells me that Samsung will not be able to track usage inside the iTunes Movies & TV Shows app. But the press release says iTunes will work with Samsung’s Bixby assistant, search, and guide features, so we’ll have to see how what data powers those things when it ships in the spring.

I’m glad Patel got an answer on this for Samsung. While it appears that the Vizio and LG announcements are limited to their TVs functioning as AirPlay 2 receivers, this is the same Vizio that was (barely) fined for selling user data to advertisers.

Patel’s questions make me wonder what happened to that perennial rumour that Apple was building its own TV set.

Update: A complete list of TV models which support AirPlay 2 — including some from Sony, too — is now available.

We Need New Privacy Norms

The Washington Post editorial board:

Legislators must establish expectations of companies that go beyond advising consumers that they will be exploiting their personal information. For some data practices, this might call for wholesale prohibition. For all data practices, a more fundamental change is called for: Companies should be expected and required to act reasonably to prevent harm to their clients. They should exercise a duty of care. The burden no longer should rest with the user to avoid getting stepped on by a giant. Instead, the giants should have to watch where they’re walking.

There are two main reasons this call is being made: antitrust regulators failed to adequately monitor the growth of privacy-averse tech companies, and those companies have zero incentive to be more responsible largely because of their size.

Apple Posts Support Article Addressing iPad Pro Bending

Since the new iPad Pro models began shipping in November, spurious reports have come in that some units have a bend in the chassis right out of the box. At the end of last month, Dan Riccio — Apple’s VP of hardware — replied to an email sent by an affected user, which MacRumors published, noting that:

Riccio’s email also says that a company statement was not included in the original information disseminated by The Verge, and that Apple will be reaching out to media outlets to comment officially.

The original email was sent late on December 20 and suggested a comment would come “later today,” but that didn’t happen, so it’s not quite clear when Apple will provide more info to the media. We may be hearing an official, more reassuring statement on the 2018 iPad Pro before the end of the day.

No statement has yet been issued. However, today, Apple did publish a marketing page cum support document, which echoes much of Riccio’s email and adds some context about the manufacturing process (emphasis mine):

These precision manufacturing techniques and a rigorous inspection process ensure that these new iPad Pro models meet an even tighter specification for flatness than previous generations. This flatness specification allows for no more than 400 microns of deviation across the length of any side — less than the thickness of four sheets of paper. The new straight edges and the presence of the antenna splits may make subtle deviations in flatness more visible only from certain viewing angles that are imperceptible during normal use. These small variances do not affect the strength of the enclosure or the function of the product and will not change over time through normal use.

First of all, and most importantly: called it.

Secondly, Apple is sticking by its assertion that tolerances for flatness are finer on newer iPads than on older models. But it is equally true that we have not previously seen reports of iPads bent in this fashion.

Perhaps this is as simple as the way in which this particular generation of iPads is showing its bend. Perhaps past iPads did, indeed, deviate from a perfectly flat plane but on a more gradual curve, as opposed to the sharp kink present in these models.

Ryan Christoffel, MacStories:

The iPad Pro’s bending controversy has reached nowhere near the level of attention as that of the iPhone 6 Plus a few years back, but it’s nice to finally receive official word from Apple on the subject. If your iPad is bent enough that it’s obvious and noticeable in daily use, there’s a decent chance the bend exceeds 400 microns, and thus would be covered under warranty. With slighter bends, however, it seems those are a cost we have to pay for enjoying the iPad Pro’s boxy, straight-edged new design.

Apple has previously stated that they do not consider this to be a manufacturing defect. However, presumably, if the bend exceeds 400 microns, it would be a manufacturing defect as it is outside of their tolerances. But how many people are going to measure the deviation from a perfectly flat plane? Hopefully, Apple’s support staff won’t give complainants much grief and will simply replace affected iPads. If you are affected and you have an experience you’d like to share, get in touch.

Also, I disagree with Christoffel that this is something we should tolerate because of this iPad’s design. If there were a manufacturing process that slightly scratched or dented a product, Apple wouldn’t ship those units to customers. Why should customers spending a thousand of their hard-earned dollars accept that their brand new product is bent out of the box?

Los Angeles Accuses Weather Channel App of Covertly Mining User Data

Jennifer Valentino-DeVries and Natasha Singer, New York Times:

The Weather Channel app deceptively collected, shared and profited from the location information of millions of American consumers, the city attorney of Los Angeles said in a lawsuit filed on Thursday.

One of the most popular online weather services in the United States, the Weather Channel app has been downloaded more than 100 million times and has 45 million active users monthly.

The government said the Weather Company, the business behind the app, unfairly manipulated users into turning on location tracking by implying that the information would be used only to localize weather reports. Yet the company, which is owned by IBM, also used the data for unrelated commercial purposes, like targeted marketing and analysis for hedge funds, according to the lawsuit.

Contra speculation I saw linked from Techmeme, this is not the default weather app on the iPhone; this lawsuit concerns the separate Weather Channel app. However, the Weather Channel is the data provider for the default iOS weather app. After reading the Times article and the suit, it’s still unclear whether users of the default weather app are affected. The iOS 12 user agreement makes no mention of what data is shared with the Weather Company.

Update: David Carroll on Twitter:

A major city, LA, fills in for FTC’s failure to effectively watchdog the data industry. IBM slammed with suit for covertly mining precise location data thru popular Weather Channel app. Ready for a GDPR for the USA yet folks?

There isn’t a set of federal regulations clarifying the conditions under which user data may be used and requiring that users opt into any use of identifying data with fully transparent rationale. The FTC has limited powers and it is squandering even those. There is little incentive for companies to be consumer-friendly when the market for user data encourages the kind of behaviour the Los Angeles city attorney is accusing in this suit.

Assorted Additional Thoughts on Apple’s Earnings Warning

It was illuminating to read John Gruber’s take on the last time this happened:

But man, delivering bad news was one area where Steve Jobs really shined in a way that Tim Cook just can’t. Look at the tight construction of that message from Apple in 2002. First paragraph: put out the numbers. Second paragraph: it’s an industry-wide problem, but Apple has “amazing new products” coming. And then the kicker, the dagger: “As one of the few companies currently making a profit in the PC business…”.

We’ve got some short term bad news but don’t worry, we have this.” And… out. Short and sweet. Rip off the bad news Band-Aid, express quiet confidence that Apple is in great shape, and that’s it. Message over.

Times — and shareholders’ expectations — change, but this is the thing that absolutely stood out to me when I read Cook’s statement yesterday. If Cook wanted to provide a fuller context, I think that’s fine, but I wish it were attached as a supplement to a more succinct and direct statement.

Ryan Jones on Twitter:

The whole “most of our revenue shortfall occurred in Greater China” seems to be getting lost. By me too.

Other companies’ China reports will be telling, if something is brewing on a global scale.

And Ina Fried in Axios:

Apple will report full results at the end of the month and will likely go into greater detail.

Meanwhile, we will also hear from other smartphone makers as well as others with big business in China.

That should help show how much of Apple’s experience was universal and how much it was uniquely its own.

Given Apple’s positioning, I’m curious about the effect China’s economic situation may have, if any, on other aspirationally-branded companies. That may be more helpful guidance than looking at its effect on other smartphone makers.

MG Siegler:

The iPhone has simply been too good of a business. And it’s hard to see what tops it. Certainly in the near term. If Services is to carry Apple in the future, it will likely be only after years of relatively stagnant iPhone revenue growth mixed with a rising overall market. In other words, time and the broader world will have to catch up. And then Apple can have their “Microsoft Moment” — a services-based resurrection of growth.

This is a great piece.

A memo from Tim Cook to Apple employees:

External forces may push us around a bit, but we are not going to use them as an excuse. Nor will we just wait around until they get better. This moment gives us an opportunity to learn and to take action, to focus on our strengths and on Apple’s mission — delivering the best products on earth for our customers and providing them with an unmatched level of service. We manage Apple for the long term, and in challenging times we have always come out stronger.

Cook’s letter to investors specifically mentioned that one of those actions is “making it simple to trade in a phone in our stores, finance the purchase over time, and get help transferring data from the current to the new phone”. Communicating easier upgrades might help users who are worried, but I’m not sure it will substantially increase sales. How many users hang onto their existing phone because they think upgrading is hard, rather than because they aren’t compelled to upgrade — for whatever reason? I’m curious about other ways that they might respond which would be more in line with the company mission that Cook cites.

Apple Cuts Guidance for Q1 2019 by $5–9 Billion From Previous Forecast

Apple posted a statement to investors in its Newsroom today, attributed to Tim Cook:

Today we are revising our guidance for Apple’s fiscal 2019 first quarter, which ended on December 29. We now expect the following:

  • Revenue of approximately $84 billion

  • Gross margin of approximately 38 percent

  • Operating expenses of approximately $8.7 billion

  • Other income/(expense) of approximately $550 million

  • Tax rate of approximately 16.5 percent before discrete items

That compares to forecasted revenue of $89–93 billion, margin of 38–38.5 percent, and “other” income of $300 million, with similar numbers for the rest of the guidance. This also compares to reported revenue in Q1 2018 of a little over $88 billion.

This is the first time since 2002 that Apple has had to advise investors that their previous forecast was too high.

Normally, this sort of thing would not be of great interest to yours truly. The company is still swimming in cash, a 38% margin guidance is ridiculously high, and this is still their second-biggest quarter ever. But I think there’s something to pay attention to in this case so, if you’ll bear with the turgid business speak, I think it’s worth a read.

Here’s how Cook explains it in his statement:

Lower than anticipated iPhone revenue, primarily in Greater China, accounts for all of our revenue shortfall to our guidance and for much more than our entire year-over-year revenue decline. In fact, categories outside of iPhone (Services, Mac, iPad, Wearables/Home/Accessories) combined to grow almost 19 percent year-over-year.

While Greater China and other emerging markets accounted for the vast majority of the year-over-year iPhone revenue decline, in some developed markets, iPhone upgrades also were not as strong as we thought they would be. While macroeconomic challenges in some markets were a key contributor to this trend, we believe there are other factors broadly impacting our iPhone performance, including consumers adapting to a world with fewer carrier subsidies, US dollar strength-related price increases, and some customers taking advantage of significantly reduced pricing for iPhone battery replacements.

There’s a lot to unpack there, but I’ve seen plenty of commentators on Twitter attribute this solely to an increase in the base price of an iPhone. But I think there’s far more to it than that; Cook says in his letter that China’s economic growth slowed hard in the second half of the year which, combined with more expensive products,1 hampered sales in one of the company’s critical markets. Perhaps the iPhone should have been priced lower there and in developing markets like India, and Apple could have eaten the difference, but would that be enough to compensate? I have doubts.

There’s a lot that happened in 2018 that might dissuade customers from readily upgrading. For example, the iPhone X stood out next to the iPhone 8 and 8 Plus, but Apple’s current flagship lineup, on its face, consists of three notched rectangles of slightly different sizes, at price points that do not fully correlate with those sizes. Plus, Apple still sells the iPhone 8 and iPhone 7, both of which still do most of the things that people want in a more familiar form factor. And then there’s iOS 12, which Apple promoted in part for how much it makes older devices perform better. Oh, and remember how, at the very end of 2017, Apple confirmed that it was silently reducing peak performance for devices with reduced battery capacity, which led to headlines proclaiming that they were deliberately slowing down older iPhones to make you buy a new one? That spawned the $29 battery replacement that Cook mentioned in his letter.2

So there’s that.

More than anything, though, it’s that smartphones have longer lives before needing to be replaced. That’s not great if a company like Apple is expected by shareholders to sell more of them every year, but it is pretty good news for consumers. In part, this longevity is attributable to the very existence of decisions like iOS 12’s performance focus and the cheap battery replacement program which, sadly, has now ended. These are good moves that should be celebrated, even though they may, perhaps, lead to reduced sales. But it’s also attributable to smartphones becoming a fully-rounded, mature product in hardware terms. My wish list for the iPhone is very long — as it is for pretty much anything I use regularly — but the vast majority of the things I wish it could do better could be delivered in a free software update.

There are clearly a lot of factors that would explain why the company is set to report a year-over-year drop and a guidance miss; Cook cites still more than this in his letter.

What I’m most interested in is where Apple goes from here. Put simply, I want to know whether Apple will react to this report.

They could choose not to; they could choose to stay the course and take potential further hits to sales figures, assuming everything will stabilize in the end. Trade wars suck. Or they could make changes. Some possible choices they could make may be highly beneficial to customers: reduced prices or new, lower-cost options; a simplified lineup; or more incentives to upgrade. But there is always a chance that their reaction could be less customer-friendly, but better for their bottom line. I don’t know that this is likely, but the possibility is there. A relatively minor example of this would be to increase push notifications urging users to upgrade.

This is a hell of a way to start a year. Apple was not the only company advising shareholders today of bad news; Tesla also announced that they were not going to meet expectations. 2019 is going to be very interesting for Apple, I think.


  1. Something I learned today is that Chinese customers pay tariffs, even though the iPhone is made in China. ↩︎

  2. Which, of course, makes it look like a tacit admission that not acknowledging when a battery needed to be replaced and then charging a not-insubstantial sum for the swap was driving sales. That’s not a good look. ↩︎

Amazon’s Long Reach

For Wired, Paris Martineau and Louise Matsakis put together a list of every Amazon house brand, acquisition, and Jeff Bezos side project they can find, and it’s staggering:

The company is known as the “everything store,” but in its dogged pursuit of growth, Amazon has come to dominate more than just ecommerce. It’s now the largest provider of cloud computing services and a maker of home security systems. Amazon is a fashion designer, advertising business, television and movie producer, book publisher, and the owner of a sprawling platform for crowdsourced micro-labor tasks. The company now occupies roughly as much space worldwide as 38 Pentagons. It has grown so large that Amazon’s many subsidiaries are difficult to track—so we catalogued them all for you. This is our exhaustive map of the Kingdom of Amazon.

Much as the web is not — and should not be — a Google product, we should also be wary of Amazon’s dominance. In their case, however, it goes far beyond online properties to the infrastructure of the web and physical trade. These companies (and Facebook) are dominant in ways that ought to be deeply concerning as a matter of reach, influence, and antitrust matters.

Facebook’s Rulebook for Global Political Speech

Max Fisher of the New York Times, building on earlier reporting by Nick Hopkins of the Guardian, and Jason Koebler and Joseph Cox of Vice:

As detailed as the guidelines can be, they are also approximations — best guesses at how to fight extremism or disinformation. And they are leading Facebook to intrude into sensitive political matters the world over, sometimes clumsily.

Increasingly, the decisions on what posts should be barred amount to regulating political speech — and not just on the fringes. In many countries, extremism and the mainstream are blurring.

In the United States, Facebook banned the Proud Boys, a far-right pro-Trump group. The company also blocked an inflammatory ad, about a caravan of Central American migrants, that was produced by President Trump’s political team.

In June, according to internal emails reviewed by The Times, moderators were told to allow users to praise the Taliban — normally a forbidden practice — if they mentioned its decision to enter into a cease-fire. In another email, moderators were told to hunt down and remove rumors wrongly accusing an Israeli soldier of killing a Palestinian medic.

“Facebook’s role has become so hegemonic, so monopolistic, that it has become a force unto itself,” said Jasmin Mujanovic, an expert on the Balkans. “No one entity, especially not a for-profit venture like Facebook, should have that kind of power to influence public debate and policy.”

We’ve never had a private company able to so easily direct and limit speech for so many people. As Maya Kosoff wrote for Vanity Fair earlier this year — in response to Koebler and Cox’s reporting — this is a direct result of Facebook’s “tireless drive to expand”. They have constantly and consistently failed to control their platform, and antitrust regulators in the United States made no attempt to use existing laws to curb their growth. As a result, they now have unprecedented reach and control over worldwide dialogue.

One thing I’ve not seen answered in any of these reports is whether moderators specialize in a particular subject — hate speech regarding a specific group, for example — or more generalized. I don’t see either approach working well at Facebook’s scale, but at least a specialized moderator would be able to approach each posts with a unique understanding and context.

Netflix and Spotify No Longer Allow iTunes Billing for New Users

Manish Singh, VentureBeat:

Netflix is further distancing itself from Apple’s iTunes tax bracket. Earlier this year, the streaming giant enabled iOS users in more than two dozen markets to bypass the iTunes payment method as part of an experiment. The company now tells VentureBeat that it has concluded the experiment and has incorporated the change globally.

“We no longer support iTunes as a method of payment for new members,” a Netflix spokesperson told VentureBeat. Existing members, however, can continue to use iTunes as a method of payment, the spokesperson added.

Damien Basile:

Companies are doing this more & more. Spotify doesn’t allow you to pay via Apple. And why should they? 30% is a huge fee to give to Apple when you have the name and market presence. Makes me wonder what Apple will do if this trend proliferates even more.

This is despite changes made last spring to Apple’s cut of subscription pricing, which is now set at 30% for the first year and 15% for every year thereafter.

Apple’s cut is booked under the broad “services” category in their financial reports. Services revenue, as a whole, has been growing rapidly for the company, but I’d be curious to know how much these moves are impacting Apple’s take. My initial assumption was that it must represent a lot of lost revenue for Netflix and Spotify, but perhaps it’s such a small amount that it’s worth the risk of some potential customers giving up on figuring out how to subscribe.1

Regardless of how much lost revenue Apple’s cut represents for Netflix and Spotify, it strikes me that this is an option for only a handful of established companies. In addition to the aforementioned, Adobe can also forego Apple’s option in favour of their own Creative Cloud subscription. The only indie company I can think of that is trying a similar approach is Panic with Transmit 5: it’s $45 directly from them, or a $25 per year subscription if purchased through the Mac App Store. This doesn’t seem viable for most small developers because of the more circuitous route customers have to take without instruction — see footnote — nor does it seem very efficient or safe, given that it requires many small studios to build a paid account infrastructure.

Update: Lawrence Velázquez points out that 1Password has a similar purchasing and subscription arrangement to Transmit 5.


  1. Which, by the way, is something Apple makes more complicated because they forbid developers from mentioning subscription options outside of officially-sanctioned in-app purchases. ↩︎

The Case Against Marzipan

The “Uluroo”:

macOS needs different design paradigms than iOS does. With Marzipan, Apple is proclaiming to the software development world that these paradigms have merged, that it’s fine to slap a touch-first interface on a mouse-first device. But that is not fine. Even if it’s acceptable to many users, that doesn’t mean it’s good.

The Mac needs Mac apps, not iOS apps. Marzipan apps are not Mac apps, they’re iOS apps. This is not a bug; this will not be fixed. This is a decision by Apple to ignore what makes Mac software great and to treat its most robust platform as a scaled-up edition of the iPhone.

The Marzipan apps that Apple has shipped so far are about a half-step better than Electron apps. They are interesting experiments; they are bad Mac apps that should not have been shipped to users. If this is what Apple expects developers to produce, I am not looking forward to where the MacOS software ecosystem is heading.

How Much of the Internet Is Fake?

Max Read, writing for New York in one of my favourite pieces I’ve read all year:

How much of the internet is fake? Studies generally suggest that, year after year, less than 60 percent of web traffic is human; some years, according to some researchers, a healthy majority of it is bot. For a period of time in 2013, the Times reported this year, a full half of YouTube traffic was “bots masquerading as people,” a portion so high that employees feared an inflection point after which YouTube’s systems for detecting fraudulent traffic would begin to regard bot traffic as real and human traffic as fake. They called this hypothetical event “the Inversion.”

In the future, when I look back from the high-tech gamer jail in which President PewDiePie will have imprisoned me, I will remember 2018 as the year the internet passed the Inversion, not in some strict numerical sense, since bots already outnumber humans online more years than not, but in the perceptual sense. The internet has always played host in its dark corners to schools of catfish and embassies of Nigerian princes, but that darkness now pervades its every aspect: Everything that once seemed definitively and unquestionably real now seems slightly fake; everything that once seemed slightly fake now has the power and presence of the real. The “fakeness” of the post-Inversion internet is less a calculable falsehood and more a particular quality of experience — the uncanny sense that what you encounter online is not “real” but is also undeniably not “fake,” and indeed may be both at once, or in succession, as you turn it over in your head.

Aram Zucker-Scharff started a Twitter thread with some more indicators in the web on which you cannot rely: advertising, social media trends, readers, viewers, and more. If it’s a number that is important, you can bet that it is manipulated for a price.

Update: Ellen K. Pao on Twitter:

It’s all true: Everything is fake. Also mobile user counts are fake. No one has figured out how to count logged-out mobile users, as I learned at reddit. Every time someone switches cell towers, it looks like another user and inflates company user metrics.

The most alarming aspect of statistical fakery is not necessarily that it exists, but what will likely be done to combat it. Instead of admitting that these stats are likely to be manipulated and are, at best, wildly inaccurate estimates — and, therefore, that decisions should not be made based on what is reported — it is far more likely that this will lead to calls for more data collection. There will be attempts to make user identification more precise and more pervasive, particularly across devices.

This already happened with reCAPTCHA. Several years ago, the system required users to type the words in distorted scans of books. By 2014, however, computers did better than humans at the test. Since reCAPTCHA is owned by Google, they took advantage of the extent to which Google spies on web users to create a usually-invisible CAPTCHA. The more you use the web — and, in particular, Google properties — the less often you’ll be asked to manually verify your humanity. That may be more convenient, but it’s hard to deny how much creepier it is.

Of course, not even that has stopped people from trying to bypass it. Researchers have demonstrated loopholes in audio CAPTCHAs, have figured out technical workarounds, and have simply thrown people at the problem.

Jason Snell on Apple’s 2018

Jason Snell wrote a well-rounded retrospective of Apple’s 2018 for Tom’s Guide that is, I think, spot on. The product side was generally positive: the new iPad Pro, MacBook Air, and Mac Mini models are excellent computers. The Series 4 Apple Watch really does seem like a slam-dunk. The iPhone XR is a product with the same processor and modern iPhone design language as the XS, but in a wide range of colours at a lower price.

But it’s not all gold. The iPhone XR may cost less than the XS, but it’s still $50 more expensive than the base model iPhone 8, and $100 more than the base iPhone 7. Price increases were a standard story across the board, too, for the Mac and iPad Pro lines. Make no mistake — these are, indeed, better products, but customers have to spend more for them than previous versions.

Then there’s the lack of updates to the MacBook or iMac, and the conspicuous absence of any mention of the AirPower teased last year for a 2018 release.

As far as software goes, 2018 was, as Snell puts it, a “calm before the storm”:

Speaking of surprise advance product announcements, in June Apple announced that it would provide iOS developers with the ability to move their apps to the Mac… in 2019. It’s a move with huge ramifications, and it’s my top candidate for the Apple story of 2019.

But this announcement was more about providing an explanation for four new apps that Apple brought from iOS to macOS as a proof of concept in macOS Mojave in the fall. I appreciate Apple’s commitment to learning about how to make this transition the hard way, but the apps Apple brought over to the Mac (Home, Voice Recorder, Stocks, and News) just aren’t very good. Apple has plenty of time to rectify this before third-party developers get their hands on this stuff next year, but right now the four object examples of the iOS-to-macOS app transition are mediocre at best and weird and broken at worst.

Then there’s iOS 12, an update that brought some perfectly nice features and provided increased stability and speed for older iPhone models. It’s a great update as far as it goes, but I’m listing it in this collection of Apple’s failures because it utterly ignored the iPad Pro. A month after iOS 12 arrived, the new iPad Pro models arrived to a critical consensus that they were amazing pieces of hardware that were let down by their software. That’s on iOS 12.

After some increased bugginess in recent iOS releases, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by iOS 12’s stability and speed. It feels refreshed on every device I’ve used. However, the iPad still feels like it hasn’t been given the authority to be true to itself. Plenty of progress has been made in iOS more generally, but very few iPad-specific improvements have been made over the last several releases; iOS 9 was the last major version with iPad-focused changes.

One last thing: something that Apple managed to avoid doing in 2018 was to be at the centre of any major controversy. While its peers were stumbling from one dumpster fire to another, the sole scary story in Apple’s year turned out to be a dud.

Safari Extensions in the Mac App Store

Jeff Johnson:

Earlier this year, Apple announced that .safariextz files are deprecated, and starting January 1, 2019, new extensions will no longer be accepted to the Safari Extensions Gallery. Apple now prefers that Safari extensions be distributed via the Mac App Store. In Safari 12, the “Safari Extensions…” menu item in the Safari main menu no longer takes you to the Safari Extensions Gallery but rather to the Safari Extensions section of the Mac App Store. Let’s examine that customer experience. We’ll take a glance at the old Mac App Store on High Sierra and then move on to the new Mac App Store on Mojave.

Placing Safari Extensions in the Mac App Store makes sense to me, but its implementation has been pretty lacklustre so far. First of all, the menu item links to an App Store story that cannot be viewed in a web browser, which is irritating.

When you get to that story, you’ll see that it is titled “Getting Started: Safari Extensions”, which implies that this is just a small selection of a much broader library of extensions. Here are the first ten in the collection:

  • Ghostery Lite

  • 1Blocker

  • MarsEdit

  • Magic Lasso AdBlock

  • Blogo

  • Ka-Block!

  • Bookmarx

  • Valt

  • Utility Cube

  • StopTheMadness

Not a terrible selection, but not great — as Johnson points out, Utility Cube is made by some developer who releases crap like a $2.79 version of Safari’s private browsing mode, several PDF scanning apps, and loads of other repackaged Apple APIs as apps. I would not trust the developer’s electronic wallet app. Why would Apple allow these apps into the store in the first place, much less highlight something they’ve made?

Anyway, if you try to find every Safari Extension in the App Store, you’ll have a very difficult time. As far as I can work out, it’s completely impossible. If you search for “Safari extensions”, you’ll get a list of results that is completely different from the ones in the collection above. Just two extensions from the list of ten above are returned in the entirety of the store’s search results. Eight of them just don’t show up anywhere.

Siri’s Performance on the HomePod in Second Loup Ventures Test

Gene Munster and Will Thompson of Loup Ventures:

We recently tested four smart speakers by asking Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, and Cortana 800 questions each. Google Assistant was able to answer 88% of them correctly vs. Siri at 75%, Alexa at 73%, and Cortana at 63%. Last year, Google Assistant was able to answer 81% correctly vs. Siri (Feb-18) at 52%, Alexa at 64%, and Cortana at 56%.

[…]

Aside from HomePod’s 22 point increase due to the enabling of more domains in the past year, Alexa had the most noticeable improvement. The largest advancement came in the Information section, where Alexa was much more capable with follow-on questions and providing things like stock quotes without having to enable a skill. We also believe we may be seeing the early effects of the new Alexa Answers program which allows humans to crowdsource answers to questions that Alexa currently doesn’t have answers to. For example, this round, Alexa correctly answered, “who did Thomas Jefferson have an affair with?” and “what is the circumference of a circle when its diameter is 21?”

Their tests indicated that all four smart speakers transcribed virtually all of their queries perfectly, and that all are improving their responses compared to previous tests. However, this is only for smart speakers; Siri, in particular, is tuned differently for each device. In about seven months, Loup Ventures will publish the results of their digital assistant test performed on smartphones. That’s the one I’m most interested in seeing because of the much wider impact it has.

Even though Siri is improving, I think it’s going to take a lot for it to win back those who have become frustrated with it for anything other than setting timers. It’s the same problem Apple Maps faces: it is much better than it used to be, but plenty of people gave up on it after they couldn’t rely on it, and the competition hasn’t stood still either.

It’s a lot to ask, but I wish Loup Ventures would release a full list of all questions asked and how each device answered.

We Should Replace Facebook With Personal Websites

Jason Koebler, Vice:

There’s a subtext of the #deleteFacebook movement that has nothing to do with the company’s mishandling of personal data. It’s the idea that people who use Facebook are stupid, or shouldn’t have ever shared so much of their lives. But for people who came of age in the early 2000s, sharing our lives online is second nature, and largely came without consequences. There was no indication that something we’d been conditioned to do would be quickly weaponized against us.

Facebook has of course become something much larger than a single website, and has, despite its flaws, “helped connect the world” for better or worse. But Facebook tapped into a trend that was already happening — it didn’t invent the idea of letting people put stuff about their lives online, it just monetized it better.

More than once, upon giving my personal email address to someone, have I been asked how I managed to set up a website of my own. It is seen as impressive when, theoretically, it ought to be very simple. The tools have been made a bit easier; Squarespace, for example, is far easier to use than preceding DIY website builders. But they are not easy enough, and there is still a psychological barrier, not to mention financial constraints.

Online Advertising’s ‘Willful Enshittening’

Dan Sinker, Esquire:

As far as major corporations go, Facebook isn’t alone in being shitty, of course. But they’re very, very good at it. So good, in fact, that the biggest companies in the world have worked overtime to enshitten themselves to keep up. The reason why YouTube is suggesting you watch WarGamer69’s treatise on the white race when all you were looking for was a new pie recipe? Because Facebook gobbled up video views when they introduced autoplay a few years ago, forcing YouTube to build their own autoplaying feed that’s been totally corrupted by the far right. When Facebook introduced Instant Articles and threatened to take traffic off the greater web and keep it all inside Facebook, Google countered with a technology that basically created a second internet for mobile devices and is part of the reason that your Google search results suck now. That, of course, came after Google tried to out-Facebook Facebook with the disastrous Google+ which is being shut down due to a massive data breach—which, come to think of it, is about the most Facebook thing they could have done. Credit to Twitter for not trying to out-Facebook Facebook, but mostly because they’ve been busy stomping on their own dick while Nazis flooded the platform.

And what greater purpose was all this willful enshittening for? To show you ads. You know how at the end of the day all nuclear power does is boil water? All of the advanced technology that’s been developed over the last decade has ultimately been about being better at advertising than the other guy. We literally broke most of the actual world and almost the entire damn Internet so that a crappy ad for something you’re probably not buying could follow you around the web that much better.

See also, of course, the second half of Maciej Cegłowski’s talk on the website obesity crisis.

Apple Promotes John Giannandrea to Executive Team

From Apple’s press release:

Apple today announced that John Giannandrea has been named to the company’s executive team as senior vice president of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence Strategy. He joined Apple in April 2018.

Giannandrea oversees the strategy for AI and Machine Learning across all Apple products and services, as well as the development of Core ML and Siri technologies. His team’s focus on advancing and tightly integrating machine learning into Apple products is delivering more personal, intelligent and natural interactions for customers while protecting user privacy.

For what it’s worth, Giannandrea already reported directly to Tim Cook.

You can tell a lot about Apple’s focus by who is on their leadership page. Aside from the more typical corporate roles — CEO, COO, CFO, and Chief Counsel — the rest of the executive team can tell you almost exactly what the company makes, how they sell it, and what they think is important. By that logic, this promotion indicates how valuable they see Giannandrea, as well as machine learning more generally.