Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Reporting Live From This Glass House

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

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

Cat Zakrzewski and Elizabeth Dwoskin, the Post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Linktree Is Integrating NFTs

Aisha Malik, TechCrunch:

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

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

Developers on Apple’s Platforms Are Now Able to Increase Subscription Prices Without User Confirmation Once Per Year

Last month, Apple confirmed to Sarah Perez it was testing with Disney a new way for developers to increase the price of subscriptions without requiring user confirmation. Today, Apple launched that capability.

Apple developer news:

With this update, under certain specific conditions and with advance user notice, developers may also offer an auto-renewable subscription price increase, without the user needing to take action and without interrupting the service. The specific conditions for this feature are that the price increase doesn’t occur more than once per year, doesn’t exceed US$5 and 50% of the subscription price, or US$50 and 50% for an annual subscription price, and is permissible by local law. In these situations, Apple always notifies users of an increase in advance, including via email, push notification, and a message within the app. Apple will also notify users of how to view, manage, and cancel subscriptions if preferred.

With all those notifications, it sounds like this is a fair change with reasonable safeguards. But in the paragraph immediately prior, Apple gives the impression that opting back into a cancelled subscription is some kind of arduous process:

Currently, when an auto-renewable subscription price is increased, subscribers must opt in before the price increase is applied. The subscription doesn’t renew at the next billing period for subscribers who didn’t opt in to the new price. This has led to some services being unintentionally interrupted for users and they must take steps to resubscribe within the app, from Settings on iPhone and iPad, or in the App Store on Mac.

If this experience is not so great for someone having to re-subscribe after failing to confirm they are okay with a new price, does it not also mean it is not ideal for someone unsubscribing from an app when they want to reject a price increase?

This is going to make a lot of people upset when their $10-per-month subscription can double within two years without their approval. People are going to remember how they feel when they figure that out. I know exactly how I reacted when my internet provider did that to me.

Scrupulous developers will avoid doing anything too extraordinary, but there are a whole lot of App Store developers abusing subscription pricing today. I think I understand the intent, but I do not like the sound of this.

Google Thanks Procrastinators With Free G Suite Accounts for Non-Commercial Use

Earlier this year, Google announced it would be transitioning “legacy” free G Suite users to paid Google Workspace plans. To its credit, Google’s plans are reasonably priced and it offered a further discount. Unfortunately, the way it handled this transition was a mess.

Ron Amadeo, Ars Technica:

Users being hit by the shutdown faced two options: either suddenly start paying for their accounts, which had been free for years, or lose access to core Workspace apps like Gmail. Users who didn’t want to pay could only export data with Google Takeout, which would download some account data that would become a bunch of cumbersome, local files. Takeout was a terrible option because it makes it difficult to get your data back in the cloud, and you can’t export things like purchased content from Google Play or YouTube.

Google added options to help users transition purchased materials to a standard Google account. But many users of the legacy G Suite offering are individuals and families who just wanted to connect a personal domain to an email provider. There are now many options open to these users at similar price points — Fastmail, ProtonMail, and even Apple have custom domain options — but this sort of thing is just enough of an irritation that it would be nice to avoid it.

I am one of those people. I have had this on my Things “Today” list for months now because I do not understand the concept of today and I do not want to deal with my DNS. I should move things off Google entirely, but its G Suite offerings generally have better privacy protections than its consumer accounts. Plus, I do not want to lose access to Mimestream, a Gmail client I think is the best email app for MacOS.

It turns out my procrastination has been rewarded. Google has updated its transition document to say users like me can retain our free accounts if they are for personal use (via Steve Whitcher):

If you’re using the G Suite legacy free edition for non-commercial purposes, you can opt out of the transition to Google Workspace by clicking here (requires a super administrator account) or going to the Google Admin console. You can continue using your custom domain with Gmail, retain access to no-cost Google services such as Google Drive and Google Meet, and keep your purchases and data.

You will need to take these steps by August 1. Google advises contacting its support team if you are not a procrastinator and already paid to upgrade.

I suppose this is a good reminder that we should move things away from providers like Google who offered free services for a long time, since they are able to take that away at any time. It is unfortunate because Mimestream really is my favourite email application for the Mac, so I am probably going to forget about my own advice and forget about migrating until the next time Google pulls the rug out from under me.

Apple Updated Its Platform Security Guide

Howard Oakley:

Don’t be put off by its title: Apple Platform Security Guide is mandatory reading for all advanced Mac Users, and the only way we get to learn about important details of macOS, iCloud, and much else.

If you prefer this document with a little more gravitas, Apple also provides it in PDF format. Max Zinkus tweeted a thread of notable new sections and updates, like this one:

First interesting deletion in the Messages for Business Chat (those grey iMessage conversations with Apple or a supported business support text line).

May 21: “The Business Chat service never stores conversation history.”

And then May 22: *gone*

This is part of a broader question about whether Apple could switch any iMessage discussion to Messages for Business Chat, which has looser security and privacy standards than peer-to-peer iMessage.

iMessage itself retains a misleading description of its security architecture:

[…] Apple doesn’t log the contents of messages or attachments, which are protected by end-to-end encryption so no one but the sender and receiver can access them. Apple can’t decrypt the data.

This remains true of iMessage in isolation. But Apple’s law enforcement guidelines (PDF) continue to indicate iMessages may be provided by subpoena if iCloud Backups or Messages in the Cloud are enabled.

Farewell to the iPod

Tom Gatti wrote a rather lovely eulogy for the iPod for the New Statesman. I was nodding along until I got to the last sentence of this excerpt, where I think my brain played a subliminal record scratch:

Crucially, the music was yours – made up of albums you owned, whether you’d spent many evenings patiently “ripping” your CD collection to your iTunes (it was lucky I already had a girlfriend by my early twenties otherwise I might have struggled to find one) or spent your disposable income in the infinite aisles of Apple’s digital music store. Of course, there were the illegal downloaders, too – peer-to-peer file-sharing continued long after Napster was shut down in July 2001. But I suspect the music fans who dumped enormous quantities of material onto their iPod for free ultimately regretted it – stuck in an endless scroll of the entire Bob Dylan and Jay-Z back catalogues, they lost sight of what they actually liked.

“Regret”? What is Gatti talking about? Anyone who has immersed themselves in an artist’s catalogue has used that as a jumping-off point and a way to develop their musical taste. If you spend enough time with a single artist, you will go through their highs and lows, their “new sound” album, their “return to form”, their masterpieces, their throwaway tracks. And then you will discover the artists they inspired and drew inspiration from. Piracy, for all its ills, is one reason why any music fan’s library these days has breadth and depth that would be unheard-of in the days of milk crates full of records.

Gatti:

Which is, of course, where we find ourselves today: a digital landscape dominated by Spotify and other streaming platforms, in which music is not exactly free, but not owned either. Instead of a collection that has been expanded and cultivated over years, we have a bottomless pool of recorded music. You can “like” an album and “follow” the artist, but the transaction is so low-stakes that it feels meaningless, and your “library” is not really yours at all.

A low-stakes transaction is a recipe for discovery.

But I do sympathize with Gatti’s other argument: these music libraries do not belong to anyone. For all music customers won by encouraging record labels to drop DRM, the labels clawed their way back with a reverse bargain: anyone can listen to all the music they want for $10 per month. But there is no way for that to be a sustainable business model if all that music could simply be walked off with, so we are back to having DRM-encumbered libraries.

Riccardo Mori:

As I said at the beginning, a device like the iPod touch is rather redundant for the way we consume music nowadays. However, I think a device like the iPod shuffle still makes a lot of sense. Its main characteristics, what made it an ingenious and very successful device back then, still make it an interesting and appealing device today: […]

Tyler Hall:

With all the shit in the world in the last few years, listening to music has become even more of a refuge and safe space for me than it ever was before.

But, for me at least, the incredible technological convergence of every single use-case into a deck of cards-sized pocket super-computer means that when I do want to only listen to music – there are a million beeps, boops, and badges fighting for my attention.

An underappreciated feature of the iPod (because it wasn’t a feature you could market during its heyday) was that it was only an iPod. Not also a mobile phone and internet communicator.

For all the new things added to Apple Music in the past couple years — animated covers, Spatial Audio, a dedicated section for songs that friends have texted me — all I really want most of the time is to put on a record and listen to it uninterrupted. I do not care what device that is on.

Hall bought an Android-based Sony Walkman. I know Sony has a few of these players and I am sort of intrigued by them. Not enough to buy one, though; that is what my turntable is for. Sometimes, I just want to escape and, for me, music provides that venue. I wish the experience on my existing devices were better suited to that. Unfortunately, the incentives for streaming services are not always aligned with these modest goals.

But this does not have to mark the end of the personal music library. The iPod was a signifier of that, but its death — which really happened several years ago; the iPod Touch is more like a stripped-down iPhone than an iPod, but never mind — does not mean personal libraries have to go away. You can still buy music on iTunes, Bandcamp, and elsewhere. Vinyl records often come with download codes. And, yes, there are still plenty of places to acquire music illegitimately. I will keep building my personal music library in a way unencumbered by DRM, without rights negotiation issues, and free of dependence on third-party services. If you care about the music you listen to, I encourage you to do the same.

Email and Password Exfiltration Before Form Submission

Leaky Forms is a new study by Asuman Senol, Gunes Acar, Mathias Humbert, and Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius (emphasis theirs):

Email addresses — or identifiers derived from them — are known to be used by data brokers and advertisers for cross-site, cross-platform, and persistent identification of potentially unsuspecting individuals. In order to find out whether access to online forms are misused by online trackers, we present a measurement of email and password collection that occur before form submission on the top 100K websites.

These researchers received marketing emails from some of the leaky sites where, I will repeat, they never submitted a form. Their typed email address was captured and whisked into the ad tech and data broker machinery without their explicit consent. When using a U.S.-based crawler to assess these forms, researchers found a greater proportion of incidents (PDF, section 4.3) of email address collection than when they used an E.U.-based crawler, “perhaps due to stricter data protection regulations”.

The worst offenders were, according to researchers, fashion and beauty websites, with shopping and general news sites in second and third places. Notably more private: porn sites, the only category for which not a single one was found to have leaky forms.

Competition Bureau Wants to Block Rogers–Shaw Merger on Wireless Basis Alone

The Competition Bureau earlier this week released a statement objecting to the merger of Rogers and Shaw, to which the providers preemptively responded. Unfortunately, it is entirely focused on the wireless space, which makes sense given the two companies’ firewall avoiding competing in cable TV or internet:

The Bureau’s investigation concluded that the proposed merger would substantially prevent or lessen competition in wireless services.

The Bureau is challenging the merger to shield Canadians from higher prices, poorer service quality and fewer choices which are likely to occur as a result of the merger.

The two providers say they are prepared to jettison Shaw’s wireless division, thereby resolving the Bureau’s concerns.

It is too bad the Bureau cannot seem to nullify the longstanding non-competition agreement between Rogers and Shaw. It cannot force them to compete in the same markets, but it should not permit such a blatant divvying up of the country.

E.U.’s Online CSAM Proposal Compromises Privacy and Is Overbroad

Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch:

The European Union has formally presented its proposal to move from a situation in which some tech platforms voluntarily scan for child sexual abuse material (CSAM) to something more systematic — publishing draft legislation that will create a framework which could obligate digital services to use automated technologies to detect and report existing or new CSAM, and also identify and report grooming activity targeting kids on their platforms.

Lomas reports this is an attempt to unify a splintered set of policies that apply to individual countries within the E.U. but, as written, it appears to require the ability for providers to locally scan the contents of messages and even detect the possibility of minors being coerced, if ordered.

The European Commission has published a guide in question-and-answer format. While it assures there are multiple safeguards, that is not comforting to European Digital Rights, an advocacy group:

The proposal may appear superficially to contain a balanced and proportionate approach. In particular, providers can only be forced to scan on their platform or service if required to do so by a judicial authority, and are subject to a series of safeguards. According to Contexte, many of these safeguards have only been introduced in the last few days, which shows that pressure from the EDRi network and our supporters has had a positive effect.

However, there are several provisions which would indicate that these protections are mainly cosmetic, and that we may in fact be facing the worst-case scenario for private digital communications. For example, providers of services and platforms have to take actions to mitigate the risk of abuse being facilitated by their platform. But they will still be liable to be issued with a detection order forcing them to introduce additional measures unless they have demonstrated in their risk assessment that there is no remaining risk of abuse at all.

Even German child protection advocates are worried this is overbroad. This proposal is one to keep an eye on for its potentially far-reaching consequences.

Tech Trade Groups Appeal to Supreme Court on Deranged Texas Moderation Law

Last year, Texas House representatives voted in favour of a bill that was effectively a copy of one in Florida to prohibit social media platforms from moderating based on “viewpoints”. It was blocked by a judge in December after two tech industry trade groups argued it was unconstitutional. Obviously.

Earlier this week, a panel of judges voted two to one to lift the injunction and allow the government of Texas to enforce that law.

Ken White on Twitter:

See, the Texas law lets the AG, or any aggrieved user, sue if they think the site censored improperly, and get attorney fees and costs and injunctions if they win. If the Texas law stands, there’s no more saying “it’s Twitter’s First Amendment right to moderate.”

Say Twitter has a no-swearing policy and I say “@DavidAFrench has a shit-ass opinion about Aquaman.” Twitter suspends me. All I have to do is sue and claim Twitter’s REAL reason for censoring me is my viewpoint on David, or Aquaman, not my swearing. Twitter has to litigate it

This will be made easier because automated moderation on scale is always difficult and usually inconsistent and I will be able to point to other times when non-anti-Aquaman swears weren’t punished. And people ALWAYS think they’re being singled out. It’s in the GOP Platform.

David Greene:

It’s even worse Ken since the law prohibits moderation of posts based on viewpoints expressed on OR OFF the site. So even if the post itself expresses no viewpoint, a litigious plaintiff can claim that the action was a response to some viewpoint they expressed somewhere else.

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

There are many more problems with this law, but I am perplexed at how anyone could possibly think this is either workable or Constitutional. It’s neither. The only proper thing to do would be to shut down in Texas, but again the law treats that as a violation itself. What an utter monstrosity.

Unsurprisingly, the tech industry trade groups are going to be asking the Supreme Court to deal with this completely deranged law.

Issie Lapowsky, Protocol:

Tech groups fighting Texas’s social media “censorship” law may file an emergency application with the Supreme Court as early as Friday, according to two sources familiar with the case. The groups, NetChoice and CCIA, have said they plan to ask the justices to vacate the Fifth Circuit’s Wednesday ruling, which lifted an injunction on the Texas law, allowing it to go into effect and prompting panic throughout the tech industry.

NetChoice and CCIA are now soliciting amicus briefs in their application to be filed by next week. NetChoice did not respond to Protocol’s request for comment. CCIA wouldn’t confirm its plans, but president Matt Schruers said in a statement, “We will take whatever steps are necessary to defend our constituents’ First Amendment rights. These include the right not to be compelled by the government to carry dangerous content on their platforms.”

It is still shocking to me how many tech companies decided to expand their presence in Texas just to save a little in local taxes. It was not exactly a bastion of reasonable laws and careful thinking before, and then the state government there went and got their technology policy arguments from Florida. What did they think was going to happen?

Google Cannot Decide Whether It Likes Headphone Jacks in Phones

Google’s new A-series Pixel phone, the Pixel 6A, does not have a headphone jack. This phone comes less than a year after the Pixel 5A ad in which Google loudly trumpeted the headphone jack in that model.

Jay Peters, the Verge:

The thing is, this isn’t even the first time this circle has come full circle. In an ad for the very first Pixel — released in 2016, the same year as the iPhone 7 — Google noted this key feature: “3.5mm headphone jack satisfyingly not new.” But the headphone jack was gone from the Pixel 2 released just a year later. The first A-series Pixel, the Pixel 3A, would bring it back, but not until 2019. Once again, Google has parodied Apple only to become a parody itself the following year.

I was one of many people who thought Phil Schiller’s use of the word “courage” was a bit much to describe the company’s decision to drop the headphone jack. But you know what? Apple made that decision and then stuck to it; it did not chicken out and do anything like Google’s weird back-and-forth nonsense. You may still disagree with that decision and wish Apple had reverted; that is fine. But it would be infuriating if Apple kept changing its mind.

Jason Kottke Is Taking a Sabbatical

Jason Kottke:

Does what I do here make a difference in other people’s lives? In my life? Is this still scratching the creative itch that it used to? And if not, what needs to change? Where does kottke.org end and Jason begin? Who am I without my work? Is the validation I get from the site healthy? Is having to be active on social media healthy? Is having to read the horrible news every day healthy? What else could I be doing here? What could I be doing somewhere else? What good is a blog without a thriving community of other blogs? I’ve tried thinking about these and many other questions while continuing my work here, but I haven’t made much progress; I need time away to gain perspective.

Good questions to ponder for anyone, even us hobbyists. Best wishes to Kottke for finding the time and space to get to know himself again.

Let Us Check in on the Wild World of Cryptocurrency

Rusty Foster, of the truly excellent Today in Tabs newsletter:

TerraUSD is an “algorithmic stablecoin,” where the much-abused word “algorithmic” here means “bullshit.” It is the third largest stablecoin in existence, with almost 18 billion tokens in circulation. The way it works is this: a developer named Do Kwan made two new crypto tokens. One is called Terra, and Kwan said “those are each worth one dollar.” The other is called Luna, and the value of Luna is allowed to float, so it’s worth whatever someone wants to pay for it. The two tokens can be converted into each other, so if Luna is worth $30, you can destroy one Luna and get 30 Terra (which are supposed to be worth $1 each). And if Terra was worth less than a dollar, you could destroy 30 Terra to create 1 Luna at a discount, which also will decrease the supply of Terra and make it more valuable, via good old supply and demand, eventually pulling it back up to $1.

Have you spotted the problem yet? If you have: lol, right? If not: I promise you have, you just think it can’t possibly be that stupid. […]

Caitlin Ostroff and Alexander Osipovich, Wall Street Journal:

TerraUSD in Monday evening trading was at about 80 cents, after touching the low of 69 cents earlier, according to CoinMarketCap. Panic selling also hit the related Luna cryptocurrency, which plunged 50% from Sunday to Monday, wiping out more than $10 billion of market value, CoinMarketCap data show.

Andy Baio adds:

This was entertaining to watch yesterday until I saw a suicide hotline topping their subreddit.

That is what is going on at a smaller player in the cryptocurrency world. How about one of the biggest and most popular exchanges? What is the situation like at, say, Coinbase?

Ben Levisohn and Janet H. Cho, Barron’s:

Coinbase stock is down 83% from an all-time high of $368.90 last November, when Bitcoin’s price also peaked at $67,802.30 per coin.

Coinbase reported a loss of $1.98 a share, missing estimates for a 1-cent loss based on generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, on sales of $1.165 billion, below forecasts for $1.5 billion. That was down 27% from one year ago.

If you tweet the word “Coinbase” right now, you may get some automatic replies masquerading as Coinbase support, with a link to a Google form where you can enter your Coinbase login information.

The Last iPod Has Already Been Made

This press release from Apple is kind of strange. The dek reads “iPod touch will be available while supplies last”, which is entirely what this release is intended to announce, but its three main paragraphs entirely skirt that news. Each of them reiterates how you can listen to music on Apple’s many other products. Seriously, read it — it is the same paragraph written in three different ways. And then you get to the very last sentence which reiterates how the iPod Touch is only available while supplies last.

For what it is worth, I think the true iPod era ended in either 2014, when the Classic was discontinued, or 2017 when the last Nano and Shuffle were made. But this was the last pocket-friendly Apple device you could buy that was not dependent on monthly fees. Pour one out for the last of the iPods.

I guess the big question now is whether this means anything for iOS 16’s device support. The iPod Touch includes an A10 Fusion SoC, similar as in the iPhone 7 line and the seventh-generation iPad. The iPod and iPad were both introduced in 2019, but the iPhone 7 will turn six years old this year. I would bet on another year of support, but it seems dicey.

Works as Currently Designed

I am beginning to think the ways I use AirPlay, which seem entirely normal to me, are exotic outliers heretofore untested by Apple’s engineers because its promise does not match my experience. Here are the two ways I most frequently use AirPlay through my Apple TV:

  1. I want to listen to music on my living room speakers, so I play albums — local and streamed from Apple Music — from my iPhone or my Mac.

  2. I want to watch a movie I previously ripped from disc or a TV show I have in my library, so I will AirPlay from QuickTime on my Mac.

Both of these features are acknowledged on Apple’s AirPlay marketing webpage, but neither works as expected. In the first behaviour, for example, when I change playback from one album to another — or one playlist to another — I expect my AirPlay connection to be retained. But no; every time, I have to manually reconnect and adjust the volume to where I last set it.

It took an embarrassingly long time for me to see that my Apple TV was actually going to sleep, and that is why the connection was dropping. Sometimes, it will also fall asleep in the middle of AirPlay playback. But, strangely, it will often refuse to sleep when truly idle, even for several hours or overnight.

When I AirPlay movie files from my Mac, it is almost like the opposite problem occurs: it is my Mac which falls asleep during playback. You know how your Mac will remain awake when you are watching a movie on its own display, no matter your Energy Saver preferences? That behaviour does not carry over to AirPlay, and the Mac’s sleep timer is not suppressed. It is not as though my Mac cannot remain permanently awake — it is an iMac with an SSD. It will silently wake up without turning on the display to update iCloud Drive and make Time Machine backups. But an AirPlay connection will be terminated when the sleep timer kicks in.

I am aware of applications like Caffeine and Amphetamine that will prevent a Mac from sleeping. But they seem like they ought to be unnecessary for this use case; my Mac should just do the right thing. There is an active AirPlay connection, and it should be kept alive until I quit the app or terminate the connection.

I have filed bug reports against all of these behaviours.1 It is this last one where I received the biggest surprise: Apple closed it with the explanation that it “works as currently designed”. That is a weak excuse. Setting aside its most literal meaning, which could be applied to any bug ever, I am reporting it as a bug because it clearly does not work as it ought to.

Am I missing something? Is my AirPlay experience entirely unique? At least I was finally able to set up my Apple TV in the Home app, last year, but it did not correct any of this behaviour. I feel like I am in a world where all of my AirPlay intentions are exactly opposite, or I am an idiot who simply has no idea how to use AirPlay.


  1. FB7465311, FB9395702, FB9894231, FB9987176. ↩︎

Websites Excluded From Big-Budget Advertisers Are Creating Marketer-Friendly Alternate Sites

Nandini Jammi of Check My Ads on Twitter:

I first caught whiff of WhoaCanada.ca while digging around @Yahoo’s sellers.json directory. TPM’s account contains 3 domains:

  • ThePostMillennial(.)com (hate site)

  • HumanEvents(.)com (hate site)

  • Whoa Canada (“7 desserts you can get in Toronto”)

Lol what

It took me ~15 sec to realize that WhoaCanada.ca *is* The Post Millennial — an ad operation explicitly designed to be the “brand safe” arm of TPM. This secret domain allows them to continue collecting ad $$, effectively subsidizing TPM’s racist + transphobic content.

After Jammi published this thread, Yahoo banned this publisher ID from its network.

It is an extremely sneaky tactic, and the Post Millennial is not the only website using a friendlier sibling for fundraising. Check My Ads also found a network of three innocuous-seeming websites subsidizing Steve Bannon’s web show.

Clearview AI Settles With ACLU

This settlement is significant, but perhaps not as triumphant as the ACLU makes it out to be:

The central provision of the settlement restricts Clearview from selling its faceprint database not just in Illinois, but across the United States. Among the provisions in the binding settlement, which will become final when approved by the court, Clearview is permanently banned, nationwide, from making its faceprint database available to most businesses and other private entities. The company will also cease selling access to its database to any entity in Illinois, including state and local police, for five years.

This does not eliminate the need for stronger privacy laws in the United States. Outside the U.S., it seems that Clearview AI is able to continue developing and selling its product under the cover of American jurisdiction, unless expressly prohibited by local laws. Clearview is still expanding.

This settlement does prohibit Clearview from providing free trial access without supervisor approval, among its biggest sales tactics. Good.

Rogers and Shaw Say Competition Bureau Commissioner Plans to Oppose Merger

Alexandra Posadzki, the Globe and Mail:

Canada’s Commissioner of Competition plans to oppose Rogers Communications Inc.’s $26-billion takeover of Shaw Communications at the Competition Tribunal, the telecom companies said in a combined statement early Saturday morning.

Rogers and Shaw said they plan to oppose the anticipated application by Matthew Boswell, Commissioner of Competition, to block the proposed takeover, which would combine two of the country’s largest cable networks. The companies said they were notified of the commissioner’s intention to file the application on Friday afternoon, after the close of trading.

The telecom companies, as well as the Shaw family trust, have also agreed to extend the takeover deadline from June 13 to July 31.

While Rogers and Shaw have issued a joint press release, the Competition Bureau has not yet commented publicly. These companies have avoided competing for over twenty years, merger or no merger. Even if this acquisition were denied, each company will continue doing business only in its designated region, performing the outward appearance of competition while ensuring the prices we pay remain among the highest in the world.

In March, the CRTC approved Rogers’ purchase of Shaw’s media holdings.

Apple, Google, and Microsoft Commit to Expanded Support for FIDO Passwordless Standard

Lori Glavin, of the FIDO Alliance:

In a joint effort to make the web more secure and usable for all, Apple, Google and Microsoft today announced plans to expand support for a common passwordless sign-in standard created by the FIDO Alliance and the World Wide Web Consortium. The new capability will allow websites and apps to offer consistent, secure, and easy passwordless sign-ins to consumers across devices and platforms.

I love this video demo from a FIDO-aligned partner company. It appears that signing into a website could soon look more like authenticating an Apple Pay payment on your Mac via your iPhone or Apple Watch. I am just as eager to have that experience for creating a new account, or for the ability to retain the same login even if the secret token is rotated. Great news, especially for accessibility.

Yield

This new piece from John Gruber, regarding the European Commission’s investigation into anticompetitive behaviours of the NFC system in the iPhone, is split roughly in two parts. In the first, Gruber claims Apple Pay was the factor in driving widespread adoption of contactless payments, but this seems more true in the United States than anywhere else. The second half is an exploration of the user experience perspective of locking NFC payments to Apple Pay on the iPhone; I think this is the more noteworthy and compelling part of this article.

But first, some stuff I just have to nitpick, starting with Gruber’s first paragraph in response to Margrethe Vestanger’s remarks:

Apple took a vibrant, perfectly balanced market where NFC payments were used by almost no one and turned it into a market where Apple Pay is accepted at most brick and mortar retailers and millions of iPhone users enjoy using it, with whatever credit and debit cards they choose. Let’s get back to a balanced market, right?

At the outset, this is framed as a market where Apple Pay enabled tap-and-go payments over swiping cards. The CNBC article Gruber links to is explicitly about that transition — not from swiping cards to phone-based payments, but from swiping cards to tapping anything. In the U.S., this was seen as a major hurdle. When I was in Los Angeles in 2014, I noticed restaurant patrons were often expected to give their card to waitstaff and the staff member would swipe it. That was wild to me.

Elsewhere, it was a different story. Paying by tapping a card was extremely common before the announcement of Apple Pay in Canada, in several regions in Asia, and in many parts of Europe, which is Vestanger’s jurisdiction. Was it less common for people to tap to pay for stuff than it is now? Sure, but not in a way that is necessarily tied to Apple Pay.

For example, by February 2015 in the U.K., financial institutions had issued 58 million cards with support for tap payments in a country that had, at the time, about 64 million residents. While Apple Pay was announced in September 2014, it did not launch in the U.K. until mid-2015. A contemporary press release touts 320 million contactless payments in 2014 in the U.K. alone, made nearly entirely by card. That is about a million transactions a day against 58 million capable cards, or about a 2 percent usage rate. Not extraordinary — but not bad, as you will see later.

A little later in the piece, Gruber argues that Apple Pay has disproportionately high use among phone-based payment platforms:

The E.C. complaint wavers between claiming Apple Pay dominates NFC payments on iPhones and dominates the entire industry. The latter was true as recently as October 2017, when Apple Pay accounted for 90 percent of all contactless transactions globally, where it was available. As I noted at the time, that’s a remarkable achievement for a platform that by all accounts is a distant second to Android in global market share.

Here’s a study from last year that claims in the U.S., Google Pay has 3 percent share, Samsung Pay 5 percent, and Apple Pay 92 percent. You know, your classic three-way neck-and-neck horse race.

The first statement was made by Apple’s Jennifer Bailey during a presentation at Money 20/20. Bailey said that Apple Pay accounted for 90 percent of contactless mobile transactions, where it was available, not 90 percent of global contactless transactions. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find a citation or a study that makes a similar statement.

The second claim is more checkable. While that study of U.S. debit transactions — it did not include credit cards — found Apple’s market share was 92 percent among mobile wallets, it also says about 2 billion transactions were made with phone-based wallets, comprising about 2.6 percent of all debit transactions. Perhaps most surprising to me is the study’s claim that only about 30% of debit cards in the U.S., as of the end of 2020, were capable of contactless payments. The study says a little over 5 percent of contactless cards were used for a transaction, or 1.6 percent of all debit payments. That is a full percentage point lower than the proportion of payments made through mobile wallets, though probably because most Americans do not have a debit card with contactless support.

In Europe, only 14 percent of contactless payments are made by phone or watch, according to a May 2020 Mastercard study; 86 percent are made using contactless cards. This surely varies country to country. In Canada, where tapping to pay for stuff has been similarly commonplace for years, people use their cards about twice as often as they use a mobile wallet, according to a 2021 report from Payments Canada:

Overall, Canadians chose contactless card payments over mobile contactless payments in 2020. Consumers not using mobile contactless payments indicated they were satisfied with their current payment methods, had security concerns using mobile contactless payments, and did not want to store their financial information on their mobile device.

If mobile wallet apps were so much more amazing to use, should they not have much greater adoption than this? It is ironic that the one clear benefit they provide — security — is cited as a reason against their use.

This report also found Apple Pay is used more than Samsung Pay only by four percentage points, even though iPhones are about twice as popular here as Samsung phones. The great disparity between Canadian and American adoption of Apple Pay compared to Samsung Pay is curious, especially given the similar device market share split. If nothing else, it underscores how weird the U.S. payments market is. Americans each have an average of four credit cards, while Europeans have far fewer, and the U.S. has been slower to adopt chip-and-PIN payments and contactless cards. It is an outlier among developed nations.

Even so, Apple Pay is huge, and Apple was closely involved with getting payment networks on board with more secure contactless transactions. Crediting it as even a primary driver of worldwide contactless adoption is, I think, a stretch. But because Apple’s digital wallet is the only one that can use the NFC system for payments, it must be the market leader among NFC-based payment options on iPhones. That is what Vestager seems worried about throughout this speech, from the second sentence on:

Today, the Commission has sent a Statement of Objections to Apple. We are concerned that Apple may have illegally distorted competition in the market for mobile wallets on Apple devices.

That is a problem if you are, say, attempting to launch a competing digital wallet with cross-platform availability.

The first chunk of this article does not seem to stand up to a closer look at the timeline of contactless payment adoption in several countries. I did not even mention the many countries in Asia where digital wallets have far higher levels of adoption. Apps like Paytm in India, GoPay in Indonesia, PayPay in Japan, and WeChat Pay in China are all way, way more popular locally than any of the digital wallets I have mentioned so far. But I did not include them for discussion because they are all reliant upon QR codes, not NFC.

The second part of Gruber’s piece makes the case that Apple does not permit alternative wallets because it would compromise the overall experience of paying for stuff with an iPhone:

I mean, it’s all just ones and zeroes. Apple could allow users to add third-party wallet apps and grant them permission to be invoked simply by double-pressing the side button. But what happens then? Do you get an extra step where the user has to choose which wallet to use, Apple Wallet or a third-party one? Or does the third-party one replace Apple Wallet? What happens when you add a second third-party wallet app? It would get confusing very quickly.

These arguments are persuasive, but some also besides the point. Nowhere in Vestanger’s remarks is there anything about the iPhone’s hardware buttons or making a third-party wallet the default. It is admittedly easy to see how those could be next steps. Mind you, I bet many PayPay or WeChat Pay users would prefer if double-clicking their iPhone’s side button would launch those apps instead of Apple’s own Wallet. All the Commission is asking about right now is why the iPhone does not permit third-party apps to use the NFC system for payments.

And you know what? There are probably some very good reasons. I can think of at least one unintended and horrible knock-on effect of permitting wider NFC use for payments: banks could require the use of their own apps instead of Apple’s Wallet. While they are at it, they could use the opportunity to up-sell people on financial products they do not need. That would suck — though at least one part of that does suck already — and it would be a worst-case scenario for this proposal. The way Apple Pay and the Wallet app work is far better than the apps my bank has come up with. This is a legitimate concern if you take Vestanger at her word. I hope this does not happen.

It also seems plausible there are legitimate security concerns for why other developers cannot be permitted to use NFC for payments. But Apple has not specifically explained any.

I look forward to Apple’s response to this inquiry. It seems like the European Commission has good reasons to be inquiring about this, but it also seems to be self-serving and I wish it would be more honest about that angle. I am most worried about the unintended effects of permitting widespread NFC use. It means Apple controls the platform less, but that seems to require giving more control to companies that people generally do not like. As much as I think NFC payments should be something usable by any developer, I can foresee how that seemingly simple change would make mobile payments a hell of a lot worse as banks will do what banks are wont to do.

Deconstructing a Simple Mechanical Watch Movement

Bartosz Ciechanowski:

In the world of modern portable devices, it may be hard to believe that merely a few decades ago the most convenient way to keep track of time was a mechanical watch. Unlike their quartz and smart siblings, mechanical watches can run without using any batteries or other electronic components.

Over the course of this article I’ll explain the workings of the mechanism seen in the demonstration below.

This is a lovely and well-illustrated exploration of how springs and gears become a self-recharging timekeeping mechanism. Fantastic.

E.U. Objects to Apple’s Self-Benefitting Restrictions on iPhone NFC Capabilities

The European Commission:

The Commission takes issue with the decision by Apple to prevent mobile wallets app developers, from accessing the necessary hardware and software (‘NFC input’) on its devices, to the benefit of its own solution, Apple Pay.

The E.U. is also working on a digital wallet of its own, which it says will create a standard way for residents to prove their identity and potentially make payments. I have not seen that noted in any of the articles about the Commission’s allegations.

Ben Brody, Protocol:

Apple told the Wall Street Journal it is “setting industry-leading standards for privacy and security” while providing would-be competitors access to the technology on the same terms as it operates. The pushback echoes Apple’s defense in other antitrust cases, including those targeting its App Store: The company often insists that features that appear to create a closed ecosystem funneling consumers through its products are merely security protections.

Are the security features it has built for Apple Pay unique to the implementation of that service, unable to be reproduced by or for third parties? I am asking honestly. Apple’s statement manages to be both misleading — “Apple Pay […] has ensured equal access to NFC” makes no sense — and vague about its security standards. Apple’s security guide suggests deep hardware and software integration lends Apple Pay a superlative level of security, but it does not say anything about why this could not be made available to third parties.

I am not just asking questions; I really do want to know what is up with this.

The CDC Paid for Location Data From Millions of Phones Collected by Safegraph

Joseph Cox, Vice:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) bought access to location data harvested from tens of millions of phones in the United States to perform analysis of compliance with curfews, track patterns of people visiting K-12 schools, and specifically monitor the effectiveness of policy in the Navajo Nation, according to CDC documents obtained by Motherboard. The documents also show that although the CDC used COVID-19 as a reason to buy access to the data more quickly, it intended to use it for more general CDC purposes.

Location data is information on a device’s location sourced from the phone, which can then show where a person lives, works, and where they went. The sort of data the CDC bought was aggregated — meaning it was designed to follow trends that emerge from the movements of groups of people — but researchers have repeatedly raised concerns with how location data can be deanonymized and used to track specific people.

Remember, during the early days of the pandemic, when the Washington Post published an article chastising Apple and Google for not providing health organizations full access to users’ physical locations? In the time since it was published, the two companies released their jointly-developed exposure notification framework which, depending on where you live, has either been somewhat beneficial or mostly inconsequential. Perhaps unsurprisingly, regions with more consistent messaging and better privacy regulations seemed to find it more useful than places where there were multiple competing crappy apps.

The reason I bring that up is because it turns out a new app that invades your privacy in the way the Post seemed to want was unnecessary when a bunch of other apps on your phone do that job just fine. And, for the record, that is terrible.

In a context vacuum, it would be better if health agencies were able to collect physical locations in a regulated and safe way for all kinds of diseases. But there have been at least stories about wild overreach during this pandemic alone: this one, in which the CDC wanted location data for all sorts of uses beyond contact tracing, and Singapore’s acknowledgement that data from its TraceTogether app — not based on the Apple–Google framework — was made available to police. These episodes do not engender confidence.

Also — and I could write these words for any of the number of posts I have published about the data broker economy — it is super weird how this data can be purchased by just about anyone. Any number of apps on our phones report our location to hundreds of these companies we have never heard of, and then a government agency or a media organization or some dude can just buy it in ostensibly anonymized form. This is the totally legal but horrific present.

Reports like these underscore how frustrating it was to see the misplaced privacy panic over stuff like the Apple–Google framework or digital vaccine passports. Those systems were generally designed to require minimal information, report as little externally as possible, and use good encryption for communications. Meanwhile, the CDC can just click “add to cart” on the location of millions of phones.

If/When/How Repro Legal Helpline

Extremely bleak news from my neighbours to the south. This is not the law yet, and it is possible for a justice on the Supreme Court bench to change their mind, or for a future decision to craft a more concrete legal standing.

Until then, I think the If/When/How helpline may be a useful resource for many people.

Update: A reminder to exercise an abundance of caution since pretty much everything you do, even regarding your health, is tracked and can be traced back to you. In many states, there will be an appetite for using this information to prosecute health procedures.

Today in Organizations That Treat Your Personal Information Badly: the U.S. Department of Education, Grindr, and the Ad Tech Machine

Surya Mattu and Colin Lecher, the Markup:

For millions of prospective college students, applying online for federal financial aid has also meant sharing personal data with Facebook, unbeknownst to them or their parents, The Markup has learned. This information has included first and last names, email addresses, and zip codes.

After The Markup questioned the U.S. Department of Education about the tracking practice, the feature that enables sharing those details with Facebook was turned off. But personal data from an unknown number of students remains in Facebook’s hands, to be used for its own purposes. According to the company’s privacy policy, it may retain this type of data for years. And the tracker remains on the website and continues to share some information about visitors with Facebook.

Byron Tau and Georgia Wells, Wall Street Journal:

Clients of a mobile-advertising company have for years been able to purchase bulk phone – movement data that included many Grindr users, said people familiar with the matter.

The data didn’t contain personal information such as names or phone numbers. But the Grindr data were in some cases detailed enough to infer things like romantic encounters between specific users based on their device’s proximity to one another, as well as identify clues to people’s identities such as their workplaces and home addresses based on their patterns, habits and routines, people familiar with the data said.

Via Shoshana Wodinsky, Gizmodo:

Does the blame in this case lie with Grindr? Absolutely. But it also lies with a system that handles your anonymity without care. Right now, if you have enough cash, you can buy location data from cell towers, satellites, retailers and countless apps that might, inadvertently, surface someone’s sexuality. And until the LGBT+ community stops being seen as a juicy market for ad targeting, people will keep buying that data, and they’ll keep doing whatever they want with it, legally. And that means nobody, queer or otherwise, is safe.

So long as personal data harvested largely without explicit consent continues to be treated as a product, it is unsurprising how invasive this industry will continue to operate. The only way this changes is if individuals have a legally guaranteed right to privacy and if businesses are prevented from sharing and collating the information they collect except under specific and rare circumstances.

The Disentanglement of Jony Ive From Apple

Tripp Mickle, of the New York Times, in an adapted excerpt from his book “After Steve” which will be released on Tuesday:1

It was 2014, and Apple’s future, more than ever, seemed to hinge on Mr. Ive. His love of pure, simple lines had already redrawn the world through such popular products as the iMac, iPod and iPhone. Now, he was seated at a conference table with Tim Cook, the company’s chief executive, the two men embodying nearly 40 years of collaboration, with one designing and the other assembling the devices that turned a failing business into the world’s largest company. They both wanted another hit, but Mr. Ive was pushing for a product reveal more audacious than any in the theatrical company’s history.

The Apple Watch was slated to be introduced at a local community college auditorium near the company’s Cupertino, Calif., headquarters. To bring cosmopolitan gloss to a suburban landscape of strip malls, Mr. Ive recommended removing two dozen trees and erecting a lavish white tent.

His extravagant vision wasn’t going over well.

“They want $25 million,” a colleague said of the event’s price tag.

Apple marketers at the table were aghast. Few could comprehend the logistics of moving trees, much less the staggering cost.

You know me — I just had to see this for myself. And it does appear that Apple temporarily relocated several trees for the construction of the hands-on area at the Apple Watch introduction. Based on the aerial imagery in Google Earth, they were planted some time between September 2011 and May 2012 and were not large. It sounds more laborious in Mickle’s telling than I think is warranted.

This is yet another in the ongoing series of articles establishing Ive as a relic of an Apple that was, in several retellings, preoccupied with form over function, and regularly invented new product categories out of thin air. In the decade since Steve Jobs’ death, so the story goes, Apple has been reduced to a successful financial instrument.

I have been admittedly simplistic, but this narrative often approaches this simpler form, and I do not buy it. Jobs, Ive, and Tim Cook are all clearly pivotal figures in Apple’s resurgent history, but it is possible to overstate their individual contributions in a desire for a simple narrative.

Clay Shirky reviewed Mickle’s book for the Times:

In the epilogue, Mickle drops his reporter’s detachment to apportion responsibility for the firm’s failure to launch another transformative product. Cook is blamed for being aloof and unknowable, a bad partner for Ive, “an artist who wanted to bring empathy to every product.” Ive is also dinged for taking on “responsibility for software design and the management burdens that he soon came to disdain.” By the end, the sense that the two missed a chance to create a worthy successor to the iPhone is palpable.

It’s also hooey, and the best evidence for that is the previous 400 pages. It’s true that after Jobs died, Apple didn’t produce another device as important as the iPhone, but Apple didn’t produce another device that important before he died either. It’s also true that Cook did not play the role of C.E.O. as Jobs had, but no one ever thought he could, including Jobs, who on his deathbed advised Cook never to ask what Steve would do: “Just do what’s right.”

I am sure Mickle has some good sources; he wrote extensively about Apple while a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, a position he held until earlier this year. (He is now at the Times.) I am interested to read this new book, despite its apparent slant. I obviously cannot say anything about this book yet, so I do not want to get ahead of myself.

But it does seem telling how the Times excerpt at the top of this article centres around the September 2014 Apple event. It may be best remembered as the unveiling of the Apple Watch, but much of the post-Jobs era of the company can trace its roots back to that day, with the introduction of two other critical things: Apple Pay, Apple’s first big internet services push since iCloud; and the iPhone 6 series, which remains the best-selling line of iPhones the company has ever released.

The iPhone does not need to be replaced by the next successful product. In its earliest incarnations, it was a Mac accessory. In hindsight, Apple’s push into services and accessories — AirPods being another hit — seems well-timed. Not only has it not invented another product of the impact of the Mac or iPhone, none of its competitors have either. Can you think of a product category that is waiting for an Apple-like magical touch? I am not sure I can. I think Mickle underplays how redefining the Apple Watch was in its market, and the same for the company’s own silicon. But if we are seeking a better designed, more well-considered version of a nascent tech category, not one stands out to me.


  1. One little aside: I find Mickle’s use of the phrase “the two men embodying nearly 40 years of collaboration” rather misleading. Combined experience is one of those crappy false inflations that makes no sense, and it is even less sensible here. Why not write about how the two have been collaborating for about twenty years? That is still impressive and is more honest. ↩︎

Apps Not Busy Being Born Are Busy Getting Killed Off

After Apple announced to developers another round of culling old unpopular apps, I was one of a few people lamenting this seemingly arbitrary spring cleaning.

I thought Matt Deatherage wrote a particularly good counterpoint, explaining that supporting older apps also leaves Apple maintaining some support legacy and deprecated APIs in newer versions of iOS:

Technical debt describes the cost of not making software changes that you know you should make because they’re too difficult or expensive. Today, iOS carries the technical debt for thousands of applications that did not keep up with changes in the OS. At some point, that debt has to devolve back onto the developers that didn’t make changes, rather than accumulating on Apple because it updated and modernized the operating system.

Apple has been better on backward compatibility than most of its competitors, but everything has limits. The new Mac Studio does not run the original MacPaint binary — nor will it run any PowerPC binaries (a feature lost 11 years ago in Mac OS X 10.7), and only runs Intel binaries through Rosetta 2 translation. iOS in turn dropped support for 32-bit binaries nearly five years ago. It’s unreasonable to require a major hardware change to allow iOS to shed years of patches to benefit developers who haven’t kept up.

This ruthless commitment to pushing its platforms forward has surely reduced Apple’s technical debt. There are not many parts of MacOS or iOS that feel like an archaeological dig in the way Microsoft Windows often does. But Apple’s decision to drop support for legacy apps is not merely a technical decision; Apple has decided to drop availability of these apps for all devices, even very old ones.

One of the main differences between iOS and just about any other consumer platform is the control wielded over app distribution. Many of the side effects of that strategy have been written about to death, but I had not previously considered is how this reduces device lifespan. On other platforms, it is not possible to make older software unavailable to future buyers. I have a Nintendo GameCube for which I can still purchase new-to-me games from the secondhand market. I am writing these words on a decade-old MacBook Air that is stuck on MacOS Catalina and sometimes requires older builds of third-party software. To Deatherage’s point, you could today buy a copy of MacPaint and a system to run it on, even if neither has been updated in decades. But even if I kept an iPhone 4 in good working condition, I would have a hard time finding software from other developers that would still function.

Increasingly, that is because some pieces of software require web-based components that may be incompatible with older versions. Sometimes, the developer will want to make API changes; other times, it is for security reasons. In either case, it is usually the developer choosing when to drop support, not a big platform company.

But there are plenty of applications that have few to no web-based components and which could work perfectly on old devices. Developers will sometimes pull these apps from market if they no longer wish to support builds for older devices. But that still leaves an unknown number of apps that Apple is choosing to make disappear. That means users of older devices may find themselves in a situation where they are no longer able to download an otherwise fine app because it is no longer popular enough to keep stocked on the virtual shelves.

Surely there are technical solutions to this. What if software like this had support for minimum and maximum operating system versions? What if these apps were only made available for users of older devices?

Making choices like these do not come for free. Apple would have to continue storing products on its servers for which there is little demand. There would need to be a way for developers to mark this software as unsupported to acknowledge its legacy status. Software that relies on web-based SDKs would need to be handled separately. One of the advantages of Apple’s current App Store process is how, for the most part, apps available for download generally just work; there is often no need to check for system compatibility.

But perhaps an elegant solution is the price Apple ought to be paying for being the sole source of native applications for iOS and iPadOS, its two most successful platforms by device sales. The App Store knows what device a user is browsing from, so it should only be offering compatible software anyway. That is possible regardless of whether the software was last updated yesterday or ten years ago.

To Apple’s credit, its long-term device support is generally pretty good; iOS 15 works with devices as old as the first-generation iPhone 6S, released in 2015. And, after this round of app culling started generating press coverage, Apple helpfully clarified its rationale. There is still some fuzziness: apps that have “not been downloaded at all or extremely few times during a rolling 12 month period” are subject to removal, but there is no indication of what “extremely few times” means.

I am not generally opposed to the App Store distribution method. It has plenty of advantages for users over other models, though it does present different compromises for developers. This elimination of older apps has underscored for me how tethered an iOS device is to Apple’s decisions and processes, even in old age. Is it proper for Apple to make the decision about when to excise otherwise functional apps from its store, simply because of age or popularity? Given how the App Store is the only venue for native apps on iOS, I am not sure that answer ought to be an easy yes.

Elon Musk Thinks Twitter Could Charge Third-Party Websites to Quote From Tweets

Elon Musk’s full plans for Twitter under his ownership — assuming he does not bail on the deal — are not yet known, but he has been gesturing at a few specific ideas. I worry about loosening moderation policies; anonymity does not seem to me to be as significant a motivator for uncivil behaviour as a community that tolerates it.

There is a growing theme with many of Musk’s ideas we know so far: they already exist, or they are patently stupid.

Mike Masnick, of Techdirt, who has been covering this acquisition with aplomb:

So, let’s look at Musk’s actual suggestions, phrased in the best possible light, and look at what Twitter has actually done and is doing… and again, you’ll realize that Twitter is (by far!) the social media service that has gone the farthest to make what he wants real, and in the few areas that he seems to think the company has fallen short, the reality is that it has had to balance difficult competing interests, and realized that its approach is the most likely to get to the larger goal of providing a platform for global conversation.

No platform has a perfect score of moderation and culling spam and I would love for Twitter to be better at both, but it is not for a lack of trying. Nobody wants a platform full of spam but, as Masnick explains, it is a vastly more complicated task than Musk saying “get rid of spammers”, as though the company has no incentive to do that right now.

Krystal Hu and Anirban Sen, Reuters:

Musk told the banks he also plans to develop features to grow business revenue, including new ways to make money out of tweets that contain important information or go viral, the sources said.

Ideas he brought up included charging a fee when a third-party website wants to quote or embed a tweet from verified individuals or organizations.

A bulletproof plan — if you disregard any other way of quoting from tweets. This is like a dumber and less plausible version of a link tax.

I am, for now, trying to set aside my personal feelings about Musk so I can just see him as a buyer of Twitter. His public statements are not comforting for the soon-to-be owner of this company. I guess the underwriters of the acquisition must see something I cannot; who can you trust if not an investment banker? But it does not look good so far.

Knotwords, or ‘You Got Your Sudoku in My Crossword’

John Voorhees, MacStories:

Knotwords is a deceptively simple new game from Zach Gage and Jack Schlessinger that combines elements of multiple word and logic puzzles into a unique, fun experience.

Each puzzle is composed of a set of squares that are divided into sections. Letters in the corner of a section establish which letters can be placed in that section of the puzzle. The goal is to arrange the letters, so they spell words vertically and horizontally throughout the puzzle. If that sounds simple, it is, but like any good game, just because the rules are easy to grasp doesn’t mean the game itself is easy.

This game is easy to figure out and often maddening to actually do — a perfect combination, in my world. Only one knock: the developers describe it as “minimal” in the App Store description, but it is nearly a gigabyte large. I wish it were as lightweight and blissful as it feels.

Good game, and not too expensive, either: free to download, then a couple of pricing tiers that get you more puzzles and a trickier game.

Older Android and iOS Apps Are Being Made Obsolete

Sarah Perez, TechCrunch:

The news that Apple is doing another cleanup of its App Store emerged this weekend, shortly after Google’s recent announcement that its Play Store will begin to block downloads for outdated apps.

Over the past few days, several iOS developers took to social media to report receiving notices from Apple that their older apps will be removed from sale within 30 days if no updates were submitted.

iOS also has a setting where the system will automatically remove infrequently used apps from your device and re-download them on demand. If these apps are removed, it means a whole bunch of rarely-used but functional apps could effectively disappear if you have not launched them for a while. That is a bummer. There are plenty of apps — utilities, single-purpose apps, and so on — I use infrequently, but when I need them I need them. I had to turn that setting off1 because iOS kept deleting apps I sometimes use.

And for what? There does not appear to be a reason why these apps are being culled now, so it appears to be just because Apple thinks the App Store needs cleaning up and, hey, some users and developers are going to suffer. Good luck to all the indie developers being forced to create a new build of their app just because.


  1. Settings, App Store, Offload Unused Apps. ↩︎

Twitter Is Not a Town Square

I skimmed through New York magazine’s list of “Twitter’s best moments” — which is what it says in the <title> tag if not the headline — and made the usual scrunched face I have when I read lists of the “best” or “worst” of something. It is a genre lab-created to incite eye rolling.

But there is one thing in this list which I think is worth your time, and it is this perfect paragraph by Melvin Backman:

Twitter is not a public square where everyone knows everything and can robustly discuss our collective happenings. Twitter is a glommed-together blob of private squares, a place where everyone is talking, always, over and around and at and through one another. Sometimes people talk to each other, but everything is only overheard. If you insist on an all-encompassing knowledge of every word uttered in your immediate vicinity, you need to put in the work.

Twitter has never been a town square, and trying to fit our understanding of it — and any other platform — into that mould is a wasted effort. I spend a lot of time thinking about Chris Hayes’ reflection on the everyday celebrity generator that is social media, and how so much of the discussions about either platform moderation or callout culture reflect worldwide growing pains with everyone being a broadcaster. There are huge benefits, but also new things to navigate. These are not town squares; they are places to have conversations with megaphones.

Apple’s Self Service Repair Now Available in the U.S.

Apple:

Apple today announced Self Service Repair is now available, providing repair manuals and genuine Apple parts and tools through the Apple Self Service Repair Store. Self Service Repair is available in the US and will expand to additional countries — beginning in Europe — later this year.

The store is, as internally acknowledged, operated by a third party, and it looks a little janky and pretty generic. Services are apparently being provided by a company formed in December called Service Parts or Tools, Inc., which shares its address with CTDI, a device refurbishing and repair logistics company. The site is built on a template that would normally use the system font, except its developers have overridden that so it uses Roboto instead. I wonder if that drives anyone at Apple nuts.

At the very least, it is about time we get access to official publicly available repair manuals for recent Apple products. And there are some surprises in those manuals. For example, each product’s manual has a different code you need to enter when ordering parts. Please, no brown M&Ms.

The separate website without “Apple” in the domain name, the cheap-looking presentation, and the specialized tools available to rent for a week at $49 all create enough hurdles so that only the most dedicated customers will attempt these repairs. I think this is an acceptable way of having people self-select whether they feel comfortable replacing parts.

Facebook Does Not Know What It Does With Users’ Data

Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, Vice:

In the last few years, regulators all over the world have tried to limit how platforms like Facebook can use their own users’ data. One of the most notable and significant regulations is the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into effect in May 2018. In its article 5, the law mandates that personal data must be “collected for specified, explicit and legitimate purposes and not further processed in a manner that is incompatible with those purposes.” 

What that means is that every piece of data, such as a user’s location, or religious orientation, can only be collected and used for a specific purpose, and not reused for another purpose. For example, in the past Facebook took the phone number that users’ provided to protect their accounts with two-factor authentication and fed it to its “people you may know” feature, as well as to advertisers. Gizmodo, with the help of academic researchers, caught Facebook doing this, and eventually the company had to stop the practice

According to legal experts interviewed by Motherboard, GDPR specifically prohibits that kind of repurposing, and the leaked document shows Facebook may not even have the ability to limit how it handles users’ data. The document raises the question of whether Facebook is able to broadly comply with privacy regulations because of the sheer amount of data it collects and where it flows within the company.

Facebook denied it was unable to control user data internally, but it is hard to read this document and conclude it has everything neatly organized and all permissions are correct. At Facebook’s scale, I am not surprised that is the case, but it is damning to see it written in plain text.

A Good Overview of the E.U.’s New Digital Services Act

Daphne Keller, writing at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society blog:

For companies that handle user content, the DSA is something like the GDPR. It adds new compliance and process rules that will need new staffing, new internal tools, new external user interfaces, and new formal legal interactions in Europe. For Internet users, researchers, and platform critics, the DSA creates a range of new legal protections and tools for understanding or shaping platform behavior.

A final draft was announced this week, but we don’t yet have a public copy. This final version is the product of a “trilogue” reconciliation process, ironing out differences between earlier Commission, Council, and Parliament drafts of the law. Those earlier versions were largely similar in the big picture and in most of the smaller points, so for those wanting more detail this earlier draft is a decent source. (It’s also formatted for easy navigation using Google Docs’ left nav bar.) For those who want more recent language, the best sources are the leaked “four column drafts” from the trilogues. Those are harder to obtain and can be painful for even dedicated wonks to follow, though.

There will likely be some differences between the drafts upon which Keller has based her analysis, but this is a good summary of what will surely be an impactful new set of policies.

Most of it appears to be either uncontroversial or full of excellent ideas — I am glad there will be more transparency around algorithmic suggestions, and the mandated ability to opt out. Then there are the changes that seem worthwhile but could lead to some nasty side effects. For example, providing users the opportunity to dispute platform judgements against them could be beneficial, but it could also discourage platforms from moderating materials outside the scope of laws like these, thus incurring paperwork. Then there are things I have concerns about, like the requirement to rapidly remove speech flagged by E.U. governments. There are risks of abuse, slightly mitigated by the E.U.’s lackadaisical approach to reinforcing some of its other data regulations.

There is a lot to like in this policy for anyone concerned about a lack of oversight of the very powerful companies that now form the skeleton of much of our lives. Frankly, if self-governance is just so damn effective, maybe these companies should have been better at doing things before policies like these were seen as necessary. That is not to say everything is fine now or that all of these policies are great, only that many of the best ideas were proposed before but were ignored. Welcome to a new reality.

The Latest MacOS Beta Improves Studio Display Camera Quality, but Not by Much

Jason Snell, Six Colors:

Apple has released both developer and public beta versions of macOS 12.4 that include within them a beta version of the firmware for the Apple Studio Display. This is the first update to the Studio Display firmware since it shipped, and Apple says that it “has refinements to the Studio Display camera tuning, including improved noise reduction, contrast, and framing.”

[…]

In terms of image quality, beyond having access to extra pixels due to framing, it looks like the camera is being a bit less aggressive when it comes to softening the image and in trying to decrease contrast. In some of the lighting conditions I tested, the dynamic range of the image seemed to be a little wider—highlights weren’t as crushed down, though blacks were still a little more of a gray. Compare it to another Apple webcam like the iMac Pro and you can really see how much less contrast this camera provides.

James Thomson’s comparison between different versions of Studio Display firmware and a four year old iMac Pro is something to behold. One of those pictures is clearly better than the other two. Normally, this would not be such a blemish; except Apple is usually great at making cameras perform well and its marketing emphasizes the new camera system in this display. Something is going very wrong here.

The Last Time an Unlikeable Buyer Took Over a Likeable Social Network

In April 2012, Facebook bought Instagram. Ten years later, another social network I like is getting snapped up by a buyer I do not care for. What can the decade-long Instagram story tell us about where Twitter could be heading?

The influence of one person can be overstated, but I understand the anxiety if Elon Musk is, as reported, actually acquiring Twitter.

There are some who believe this will resemble something of a rebirth of the “free speech wing of the free speech party” mantra. Some of the people who are very excited by this are terrible. Though they do not represent everyone who may hope for a less moderated Twitter, it is worrying to see so much enthusiasm for that concept from unrepentant assholes. The failure of reactionary Twitter clones does not fill me with confidence. Why Musk — a man who justified cancelling a Tesla order because the customer was rude in a blog post — apparently represents the paragon of unimpeded speech is another matter.

There are others who are deeply concerned about what a Musk-owned Twitter looks like. Some are re-evaluating their use of the platform — whether they follow through over the long term is a different matter — and worry about the broader implications of Twitter’s outsized influence falling under the purview of someone who does not understand platform moderation. Musk is also somebody who has used Twitter in ways that are despicable and illegal. Management at one of his Tesla factories allegedly subjects black employees to a “pattern of rampant racism and harassment”. It is worrying this is the guy who could be running Twitter.

Though I sympathize with the latter views, the most significant changes will not happen over the short term and, unlike many of Facebook’s changes to Instagram, are harder to predict. There are key differences between these acquisitions — especially in buyer intent and long-term interests. For example, Musk appears to actually like Twitter and wants more direct influence; whether his ideas are improvements is another matter. Facebook did not buy Instagram for those reasons. It bought the company because Mark Zuckerberg saw it was a threat.

After its acquisition, Facebook moved Instagram to its internal infrastructure, improving its stability and also making it harder to decouple. It also added features. Video was a natural extension of the app’s longtime square photo format: it came first to posts, and then in long-form, short-form, and even shorter form versions through IG TV, Reels, and Stories, respectively. Facebook added direct messaging, added more user controls to reduce abuse, and made it possible to search for photo topics.

But Facebook also added its unique brand of financialization. Every layer of the app has been tuned and tweaked for optimal monetization. Every fourth post in the timeline is now an ad. There are several ads between Stories. The app has a mall inside it.

Even the core photo sharing functionality has changed, most famously by swapping a feed sorted based on time for one based on what Instagram thinks you will be most interested in, mimicking the longtime behaviour of Facebook’s News Feed. At first, users still saw posts from users they follow but organized differently. Instagram later augmented those photos with “suggestions”, first at the end of recent posts, and then scattering them throughout users’ feeds. All of these things are designed to encourage people to use Instagram longer and more often, damn the consequences.

These are the long-term product decisions I worry about. Perhaps some of these changes would have been made to Instagram regardless of ownership, but Facebook’s fingerprints are all over the reality of its reality today. Every possible path is being squeezed for revenue and engagement, which has birthed a dubious industry of SEO-like specialists who claim to help improve popularity on Instagram. Along the way, Instagram has dropped its original audience; it has no need for you to share a nice photo when it wants everyone else to shop for a bike, or scroll through an endless feed of short videos as it hopes you do not switch over to TikTok and do the same thing.

The unique thing about Twitter is how, at its core, it is the same as it was when I joined fifteen years ago. It has moved slowly to change — sometimes to a fault, like how reluctant it was to answer calls for more aggressively moderation of its platform. This is in direct contrast to Facebook’s “move fast and break things” ideology. Musk is different, too: he often promises to radically change the world overnight, but rarely meets his goals of either time or quality. There are Teslas everywhere, but the long-promised $35,000 model vanished shortly after launch. SpaceX is as much a staggering achievement as the Boring Company’s tunnels are a failure. Whatever you think Musk’s plans for Twitter could be, it may be in your best interest to scale back your forecasts.

I think it is unlikely Musk will take Twitter to new heights; this is not his forte, nor something he has expressed particular knowledge about. I just hope he does not do what Facebook did for Instagram by radically upending the platform and chasing away longtime users. Perhaps he simply gets bored, or realizes platform moderation is a difficult task. Whatever the case, it still seems surreal that Twitter — this still-weird platform I enjoy — is about to be owned by one person.

Anomaly Six’s Surveillance Powers

Sam Biddle and Jack Poulson, the Intercept:

Anomaly Six software lets its customers browse all of this data in a convenient and intuitive Google Maps-style satellite view of Earth. Users need only find a location of interest and draw a box around it, and A6 fills that boundary with dots denoting smartphones that passed through that area. Clicking a dot will provide you with lines representing the device’s — and its owner’s — movements around a neighborhood, city, or indeed the entire world.

[…]

To fully impress upon its audience the immense power of this software, Anomaly Six did what few in the world can claim to do: spied on American spies. “I like making fun of our own people,” Clark began. Pulling up a Google Maps-like satellite view, the sales rep showed the NSA’s headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, and the CIA’s headquarters in Langley, Virginia. With virtual boundary boxes drawn around both, a technique known as geofencing, A6’s software revealed an incredible intelligence bounty: 183 dots representing phones that had visited both agencies potentially belonging to American intelligence personnel, with hundreds of lines streaking outward revealing their movements, ready to track throughout the world. “So, if I’m a foreign intel officer, that’s 183 start points for me now,” Clark noted.

Clark was able to show the location history for each of those nearly two hundred devices for, according to Biddle and Poulson, up to a year’s worth of tracking. Any of these devices were easily de-anonymized because, well, Anomaly Six had their entire location history. It is worth being cautious about their capabilities given the self-promotional context of these claims, but multiple experts told the Intercept they felt believable.

Byron Tau of the Wall Street Journal has previously reported on Anomaly Six’s capabilities, which are derived from the inclusion of its SDK in third-party apps as well as the broader data broker economy. That economy is potentially open to users from other countries, given the United States’ almost non-existent protections on personal data privacy. Much of the world’s tech industry is also based in the U.S. and their privacy policies often say U.S. jurisdiction applies.

Not only does the American military-industrial complex have the ability to spy on the world’s devices, adversarial nations could create similar capabilities — again, partly thanks to the weak privacy protections afforded by U.S. law and its concentration of tech companies.

It does not really matter how well-educated you are as a consumer or user. Short of not owning anything that connects to the internet, there is no reliable way of opting out of surveillance by a company nobody really thinks about. The only way this gets improved is by minimizing data generation and collection, and through stricter privacy laws. Perhaps this is one reason why American lawmakers have been reluctant to pass such laws.

Nuance in the YouTube Rabbit Hole

Shira Ovide, New York Times:

A group of academics found that YouTube rarely suggests videos that might feature conspiracy theories, extreme bigotry or quack science to people who have shown little interest in such material. And those people are unlikely to follow such computerized recommendations when they are offered. The kittens-to-terrorist pipeline is extremely uncommon.

That doesn’t mean YouTube is not a force in radicalization. The paper also found that research volunteers who already held bigoted views or followed YouTube channels that frequently feature fringe beliefs were far more likely to seek out or be recommended more videos along the same lines.

“Nuance” is used as the headline of Ovide’s article, and I think that is a good way of framing this research. Just as it was never the case that YouTube’s recommendation always pushed people toward extremism, it is also not the case that it never does; this research does not automatically disprove past studies or articles about extremist pipelines on YouTube.

Zeynep Tufekci wrote in 2018 about her experiences seeing extremist videos recommended by YouTube after watching, for example, a Trump rally. I remember when YouTube used to recommend the same Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson clips on its homepage, no matter whether I accessed YouTube regularly or in private browsing. But in 2019, Google made changes so YouTube would less frequently recommend fringe videos and conspiracy theories.

This new study (PDF), from Annie Chen et al., suggests those changes may have worked. Their participants browsed YouTube between July and December 2020:

Using data on web browsing, we provide behavioral measures of exposure to videos from alternative and extremist channels on YouTube. Our results indicate that exposure to these videos after YouTube’s algorithmic changes in 2019 is relatively uncommon and heavily concentrated in a small minority of participants who previously expressed high levels of hostile sexism and racial resentment. These participants frequently subscribe to the channels in question and reach the videos that they produce via external links. By contrast, we find relatively little evidence of people falling into so-called algorithmic “rabbit holes.” Recommendations to videos from alternative and extremist channels on YouTube are very rare when respondents are watching other kinds of content and concentrated among subscribers to the channels in question.

The last part of this paragraph is, I think, still concerning. On page 20, the researchers show that recommendations typically match the type of materials users are already watching. So if someone saw a video from a mainstream media channel, they got mostly mainstream media recommendations. Similarly, someone watching videos from an extremist channel would fill their recommendations for other extremist media. To me, this appears to be an acknowledgement that YouTube’s recommendations can serve to deepen a hole the company began digging many years ago, but it is mostly sequestering those users into their own bubble. I am not sure that is a good thing — is it good for society that YouTube automatically encourages some people to binge-watch David Duke’s bile and spew? It seems more responsible to remove videos from these kinds of channels from everyone’s recommendations.

Notably, the study found that there is still a small pipeline from dreadful but not extremist YouTube channels to more extreme videos. Compare the list of what the researchers refer to as “alternative channels” on page seven against the referral chart shown on page 17. Perhaps just as significant is the “off-platform referrer” chart shown on page 18, which indicates that “alternative social” media is the biggest external referral source for extremist videos.

European Parliament Agrees to Standardize ‘Small and Medium-Sized’ Devices Around USB-C

From a European Parliament press release:

On Wednesday the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee adopted its position on the revised Radio Equipment Directive with 43 votes in favour (2 against).

The new rules would make sure consumers no longer need a new charger and cable every time they purchase a new device, and can use one charger for all of their small and medium-sized electronic gadgets. Mobile phones, tablets, digital cameras, headphones and headsets, handheld videogame consoles and portable speakers, rechargeable via a wired cable, would have to be equipped with a USB Type-C port, regardless of the manufacturer. Exemptions would apply only for devices that are too small to have a USB Type-C port, such as smart watches, health trackers, and some sports equipment.

The straight-line way of reading this is that future iPhones and iPads will have to have a USB-C port instead of a Lightning one. An irony of introducing a policy like this now instead of, say, eight years ago is that it is likely to generate a massive amount of short-term waste as new device purchasers adopt the new standard. One of the Lightning cables I am still using is one that came in the box with my iPhone 6S because my current iPhone still uses that same connector, but I might have to stop using that — and all the other Lightning cables I have — when I upgrade.

A bizarro world way of interpreting this press release is that Apple could submit the connector currently known as Lightning to the USB standards people for certification, perhaps as a USB-C Mini connector. Depending on how these regulations are written, if it is being forced to adopt a standard and forego royalties from its proprietary connector, why would it not use a connector it actually likes and is familiar with? Sure, that does not fit the E.U.’s goal of adopting a single universal cable, but surely there are flexibilities built into the law so future inventions are not hampered by the requirement of forever using the standards available today, right? Because that would be pretty silly.

Right?

Update: The regulations would not apply if a device uses only a wireless charging mechanism.

When a Security Engineer Nearly Gets Scammed

This story from Robert Heaton resonated with me as I, too, have nearly fallen into a similar trap.

A while back, I received what appeared to be an automated cPanel email alerting me that one of my web servers was nearly full. I first saw the email on my phone and it looked perfect, but I was not prepared to administer cPanel while grocery shopping.

When I checked it out on my computer later, the button’s link was hidden behind a URL shortener. That seemed odd. I decided to log into my server using a known good address and I was relieved for two reasons: first, the server was nowhere near full; second, I did not become the victim of a clever phishing scam.

The hoax Heaton nearly fell for was a banking one, but it is broadly similar in its attention to detail. There feel like two main categories of scam. One attempts to con only the most vulnerable people by using tactics that feel obviously fake to the vast majority of us, in the hope that we will self-select ourselves out of becoming scammed. The other is far more clever and really does feel legitimate. The criminals have done enough work to understand their specific target. That is pretty scary.

One of the things that would have saved me from the cPanel phishing attempt, had I clicked on the button, is that my username and password would not have autofilled from iCloud Keychain because the domain was different. That likely would have tipped me off that something was not right. I know it is trite advice, but use a good password manager — not only for the more obvious reasons, but also because it will give you a moment to think when it does not work as expected.

Tech Worker Unionization

Annie Palmer, in an April 1 CNBC article:

Employees at an Amazon warehouse on New York’s Staten Island voted Friday to join a union, a groundbreaking move for organized labor and a stinging defeat for the e-commerce giant, which has aggressively fought unionization efforts at the company.

[…]

The union is led by Christian Smalls, a former JFK8 manager, who was fired by Amazon in 2020 after the company claimed he violated social distancing rules. Smalls argued he was fired in retaliation for staging a protest in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic to call for stronger safety measures.

Smalls was smeared by Amazon’s general counsel in internal memos after his firing. Gerald Bryson was also fired from his job at JFK8 for protesting lacklustre safety measures with Smalls; Amazon was just told to reinstate his job. Amazon says it is appealing. I disagree.

Lauren Kaori Gurley, Vice:

An Apple Store in Atlanta has filed for a union election with the Communications Workers of America, becoming the first of Apple’s 272 brick-and-mortar stores in the country to do so.

[…]

The news coincides with a wave of burgeoning and growing union drives at Apple stores at least half a dozen Apple store locations, including locations in New York City and Maryland. Apple store employees are unionizing with at least three different national unions, a reflection of the siloed nature of Apple’s retail store locations. The CWA campaign is part of CODE-CWA, an initiative to unionize tech and games workers, and has members from Activision-Blizzard and Google.

Good for all of these workers. These are two of the most valuable companies on the planet, and their non-tech workforce should absolutely be negotiating for better pay and conditions. Both may pay higher than average wages for their roles but there is no reason why that should be a ceiling. Employees at the Genius Bar, in particular, used to be given unique experiences that made them feel like an integral part of Apple. Now? Not so much. These core workforces can expect better.

Apple to Roll Out Child Safety Feature That Locally Screens Messages for Nudity to U.K., Canada

Alex Hern, the Guardian:

A safety feature that uses AI technology to scan messages sent to and from children will soon hit British iPhones, Apple has announced.

The feature, referred to as “communication safety in Messages”, allows parents to turn on warnings for their children’s iPhones. When enabled, all photos sent or received by the child using the Messages app will be scanned for nudity.

[…]

Apple has also dropped several controversial options from the update before release. In its initial announcement of its plans, the company suggested that parents would be automatically alerted if young children, under 13, sent or received such images; in the final release, those alerts are nowhere to be found.

Hern repeatedly writes about this “iPhone” feature, but Apple says this feature is on iPads and Macs, too. Rene Ritchie says the feature will also be coming to Canadian devices. Ritchie does not say when it will roll out, but I bet it will happen in the same software updates as the U.K. launch.

I maintain this feature is a welcome one and should be an option for all users, at least on the receiving side. This is not the far more controversial CSAM detection feature, which Apple has yet to release or communicate updates. Apple first rolled out this feature in the U.S. with iOS 15.2 in December. I remain concerned about the power of an algorithmic process unaudited by a third party, and whether it will intervene with Goldilocks sensitivity. If it uses a similar photo recognition process as the Photos app, that is not the most confidence-inspiring start.

Even so, in this case, I truly believe doing something is better than doing nothing. If its false positive rate is acceptably low, it may feel more trustworthy, though I think Apple needs to better communicate the use of on-device processing for such a sensitive feature — recall the ‘brassiere’ incident of 2017. The flip-side concern is its false negative rate. That is obviously a concern but, it must be noted, the worst case scenario of failing to flag nudity is the present situation.

Waxy.org Turns Twenty

Andy Baio’s Waxy.org turned twenty years old last week and, to mark the occasion, Baio assembled a list of his favourite posts in the past ten years. (In 2012, Baio compiled his favourites from the first ten years.) There are so many significant pieces here — and it does not even include the well-curated external links published in that time — that it underscores why Waxy.org is a daily must-read for me.

A Former Foxconn Executive Tries to Explain What Went Wrong in Wisconsin

In this episode of the Verge’s “Decoder” podcast, Nilay Patel and Josh Dzieza interviewed Alan Yeung, who formerly led Foxconn’s efforts to build a factory in Wisconsin. Yeung wrote a book about how the plan came together, and is apparently writing another volume about how it actually panned out. This discussion is excruciating. Here is a taste:

NP: We are running out of time, and I need to ask you a few questions that I have been dying to know the answer to. Josh actually pivoted to these. Your book and Foxconn talked a lot about AI 8K+5G, but it was never defined as far as I could tell. We searched and searched. What on earth is AI 8K+5G?

That will actually be in the next book.

NP: It’s in this book.

You can read the transcript, but you have to listen to this episode to really feel how uncomfortable and frustrating Yeung’s answers are. Dzieza’s reporting about this partly abandoned project has been second-to-none, yet even Yeung — who professes having no current relationship with Foxconn and who claims not to be defending the company — cannot produce a satisfying answer to very simple questions.

What Happens When a Smart Home Vendor Goes Away and Takes Its Servers With It?

Stacey Higginbotham:

Lilleness is a former executive at Nokia who lives in Seattle and invested $7.3 million in the Smartlabs business before taking on his leadership role at the company. At the time he expressed optimism that Insteon’s proprietary technology could become the underpinning of a big shift to smarter homes. However, the adoption of proprietary technologies such as Insteon didn’t pan out as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Zigbee prevailed. And now, with the looming launch of the Matter smart home interoperability standard, Insteon’s core tech will be even further marginalized.

However, this means thousands of Insteon users, who I know as a vocal and pretty satisfied bunch, will be left with gear that doesn’t work. Insteon does provide local control of its smart lights and nodes through hubs in the home, but there are plenty of cloud components to get the system to talk to Alexa or Google. Last year, an outage in Insteon’s AWS cloud frustrated users for several days.

I am feeling confident in my skepticism of smart home devices. I can only hope this market does not go the way of smart TVs.

It Is Ridiculously Difficult to Buy a ‘Dumb’ TV

Jeff Somers, Lifehacker:

That’s a lot of reasons to want a smart TV in today’s hyper-connected age but there are actually a lot of reasons why you don’t want a smart TV—and why you should strongly consider buying a “dumb” TV that offers an incredible viewing experience, and leave all the smarts to a separate device. In fact, here’s why you should buy the dumbest TV you can find.

Karl Bode, Techdirt:

You used to own a TV for ten years, and you’d just swap in and out HDMI-connected hardware as technologies evolved. But by integrating an OS and trying to dominate the hardware space, TV vendors have created a new, wasteful paradigm that shortens the shelf-life of televisions. Frustrated by the slow OS of a four year old TV? Better just buy an entirely new one!

Commenters on Bode’s post appear to have suggestions, but I was unable to find any of them on Amazon’s Canadian store. Bode references a 65-inch Samsung model, but I could not find that on Samsung’s site. Most online stores do not have a way to filter for non smart TVs, either.

I am sure there is a chunk of the market that is totally fine with this situation, but I am also sure there is a huge chunk of the market that is not. I am one of the people in the latter. And I find it hard to believe vendors could not sell these televisions if they wanted to.

I bet consumer demand is not the reason for the proliferation of smart TVs. It is almost certainly the result of an anti-privacy ad economy that makes so much money for these brands, the viewing data they are also paid to collect, and deals with streaming services to embed their apps. Given the rate at which iOS users have attempted to opt-out of tracking, many people probably prefer a TV option they are unable to find.

I sympathize with John Siracusa.

Update: In case I am reading this later, when I am next in the market for a TV, Staples and Walmart have a yes-or-no filter for smart TVs.

NSO Group and Candiru Spyware Allegedly Used by Spanish Government Against Catalan Independence Movement Leaders

John Scott-Railton, et al., of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab:

In 2019, WhatsApp patched CVE-2019-3568, a vulnerability exploited by NSO Group to hack Android phones around the world with Pegasus. At the same time, WhatsApp notified 1,400 users who had been targeted with the exploit. Among the targets were multiple members of civil society and political figures in Catalonia, Spain. The Citizen Lab assisted WhatsApp in notifying civil society victims and helping them take steps to be more secure.

The cases were first reported by The Guardian in 2020. Following these reports, the Citizen Lab, in collaboration with civil society organisations, undertook a large-scale investigation into Pegasus hacking in Spain. The investigation has uncovered at least 65 individuals targeted or infected with Pegasus or spyware from Candiru, another mercenary hacking company.

Not only did researchers find spyware on the devices of activists and political figures, but also on the devices of family members.

Ronan Farrow, in a deeply reported article for the New Yorker:

The Citizen Lab’s researchers concluded that, on July 7, 2020, Pegasus was used to infect a device connected to the network at 10 Downing Street, the office of Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. A government official confirmed to me that the network was compromised, without specifying the spyware used. “When we found the No. 10 case, my jaw dropped,” John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab, recalled. “We suspect this included the exfiltration of data,” Bill Marczak, another senior researcher there, added. The official told me that the National Cyber Security Centre, a branch of British intelligence, tested several phones at Downing Street, including Johnson’s. It was difficult to conduct a thorough search of phones — “It’s a bloody hard job,” the official said — and the agency was unable to locate the infected device. The nature of any data that may have been taken was never determined.

The Citizen Lab suspects, based on the servers to which the data were transmitted, that the United Arab Emirates was likely behind the hack. “I’d thought that the U.S., U.K., and other top-tier cyber powers were moving slowly on Pegasus because it wasn’t a direct threat to their national security,” Scott- Railton said. “I realized I was mistaken: even the U.K. was underestimating the threat from Pegasus, and had just been spectacularly burned.” The U.A.E. did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and NSO employees told me that the company was unaware of the hack. One of them said, “We hear about every, every phone call that is being hacked over the globe, we get a report immediately” — a statement that contradicts the company’s frequent arguments that it has little insight into its customers’ activities. In its statement, the company added, “Information raised in the inquiry indicates that these allegations are, yet again, false and could not be related to NSO products for technological and contractual reasons.”

Does the NSO Group receive regular activity reports or does it not? That should be such a simple question for the company to answer, but Farrow quotes an employee wholly contradicting NSO Group’s public statements. This whole spyware industry is built on a sketchy foundation and these companies beg for trust, yet it seems we just do not know such a fundamental truth about how they operate: do they or do they not know what devices are being targeted by their clients?

As a result of this incident, Farrow reports, U.K. numbers — like U.S. numbers — have been disallowed from targeting. For those of us elsewhere, our activists and lawmakers and journalists are simply not valuable enough for NSO Group to treat with the same dignity or respect for privacy. As Farrow reports, this spyware is a tool for diplomacy as much as it is a product for warfare. Non-American and non-British people are apparently undeserving of the same level of humanity.

Researchers Find Shades of Opacity, Plenty of Tracking, After App Tracking Transparency

Dan Goodin, Ars Technica:

Last year, Apple enacted App Tracking Transparency, a mandatory policy that forbids app makers from tracking user activity across other apps without first receiving those users’ explicit permission. Privacy advocates praised the initiative, and Facebook warned it would spell certain doom for companies that rely on targeted advertising. However, research published last week suggests that ATT, as it’s usually abbreviated, doesn’t always curb the surreptitious collection of personal data or the fingerprinting of users.

If anything, Goodin underplays this rather scathing report (PDF), in which researchers describe finding minimal changes in app-based tracking after the implementation of App Tracking Transparency. There are some benefits — more apps chose to ask for certain permissions later rather than upfront, minimizing unnecessary data collection, for example, and a significant drop in IDFA use. Some tracking SDKs also saw reduced usage.

But ATT was not as aggressive an anti-tracking measure as Apple may have hoped for or portrayed in its advertising. While IDFA use dropped, other attributes about a user’s phone are collected more often. Plenty of apps and SDKs are still tracking users without their consent or knowledge — most often, sending data to Google and Facebook, but also Unity, Verizon, and Oracle. And nine apps went even further:

In our analysis, we found 9 apps that were able to generate a mutual user identifier that can be used for cross-app tracking, through the use of server-side code. These 9 apps used an “AAID” (potentially leaning on the term Android Advertising Identifier) implemented and generated by Umeng, a subsidiary of the Chinese tech company Alibaba. The flow to obtain an AAID is visualised in Figures 6a and 6b. As expected, the IDFA is only zeros because we used the opt-out provided by iOS 14.8; we observe, however, that the IDFV (ID for Vendors), a non-resettable, app-specific identifier is shared over the Internet, see Figure 6a. The sharing of device information for purposes of fingerprinting would be in violation of the Apple’s policies, which do not allow developers to “derive data from a device for the purpose of uniquely identifying it”.

As Apple was preparing to release the iOS 14.5 update that introduced ATT, it told a group of developers — also from China — to cease and desist creating a workaround to allow individual device tracking. The researchers of this more recent analysis reported this apparent synthetic tracking identifier to Apple and, when the researchers later tried to reproduce it in iOS 14.8, found that the identifier request was now encrypted but was likely similar. When they tried to reproduce using iOS 15, they were unable to do so.

This is only tangentially related, but Alibaba was the same company that was collecting users’ history from their web browser, even when it was being used in incognito mode.

This observation from the researchers’ report is upsetting:

At the same time, it is worrying that a few changes by a private company (Apple) seem to have changed data protection in apps more than many years of high-level discussion and efforts by regulators, policymakers and others. This highlights the relative power of these gatekeeper companies, and the failure of regulators thus far to enforce the GDPR adequately. An effective approach to increase compliance with data protection law and privacy protections in practice might be more targeted regulation of the gatekeepers of the app ecosystem; so far, there exists no targeted regulation in the US, UK and EU.

Regulators and companies like Apple are still trying to catch up to the underhanded mechanisms involved in the surveillance-powered economy. There is some progress, but it is slow and not nearly enough to undo such a deeply engrained, intrusive, and hostile system. Privacy needs to be treated as a serious public policy issue and the stewards of its enforcement must be adequately resourced. That simply is not happening.

Updates on the Elon Musk and Twitter Dialogue Which, I Promise, Are More Thoughtful Than This Title Suggests

First, the biggest news — Twitter is trying to force Elon Musk to negotiate or abandon his attempted acquisition of the company.

Lauren Hirsch and Kate Conger, New York Times:

Twitter on Friday unveiled its counterattack against Elon Musk by putting in place a corporate maneuver known as a poison pill.

The strategy aims to slow or block Mr. Musk’s $43 billion bid to buy Twitter.

A poison pill, devised by law firms in the 1980s to protect companies from corporate raiders, essentially lets a takeover target flood the market with new shares or allow existing shareholders other than the bidder to buy them at a discount. That means anyone trying to acquire the company must negotiate directly with the board.

The pill will be triggered once any individual or a group of people working together buy 15 percent or more of Twitter’s shares. Mr. Musk currently owns more than 9 percent.

That should buy Twitter more time to strike a truce with Musk, but it is a tricky situation because some analysts believe the company’s stock could tank if he sells his shares.

Shortly after announcing his plan to acquire Twitter yesterday, Musk appeared onstage at the TED Conference in Vancouver to chat about his plans for the company should his takeover bid be successful. Musk and his conversation partner, TED head Chris Anderson, may have made a lot of word salad, but both made very little sense.

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

And, again, as anyone who has lived through (or read up on) the history of content moderation knows, platforms all went through this exact process. The process that Musk thinks no one has actually done. They all started with a fundamental default towards allowing more speech and moderating less. And they all realized over time that it’s a lot more nuanced than that.

They all realized that there are massive trade-offs to every decision, but that some decisions still need to be made in order to stop “making the product worse” and to figure out ways to build “maximal trust” and to be “broadly inclusive.” In other words, for all of Musk’s complaining, Twitter has already done all the work he seems to pretend it hasn’t done. And his “solution” is to go back to square one while ignoring all the people who learned about the pitfalls, challenges, nuances, and trade-offs of the various approaches to dealing with these things… and to pretend that no one has done any work in this area.

Masnick links to an excellent paper called “The New Governors” (PDF) by Kate Klonick in the Harvard Law Review. I am a little embarrassed to admit I had not heard of this paper before today, given how often this topic has come up. But I knew as soon as I finished it that it is essential reading for anyone thinking about moderation in any context. It is less than eighty pages; it is worth taking time to read it for yourself. It can help avoid embarrassing ideas about how online platforms work or how they ought to work.

Update: The more I think about this situation, the more it feels like an unforced pain in the ass that is no good for anybody. What are the outcomes here? Maybe Twitter is acquired by Musk, he finds it a huge burden and has no idea what he has gotten himself into, and tries to get rid of it. Maybe he realizes he has to get out of this thing before it gets too out of hand? Well, Twitter’s stock prices will collapse — for how long, who knows? — and it makes shareholders nervous. Different sets of users are skeptical either way. What a mess.

Bill C–10 Is Now Bill C–11, but Still Terrible

Canadian readers: remember last year’s terrible Bill C–10? It did not make it through the legislative process at the time, but it is back, admittedly with some changes but still with the same goals and many of the same flaws.

Ramneet Bhullar, of OpenMedia:

Bill C-11 expands the Broadcasting Act that grants the CRTC regulatory powers over radio and television to cover all audiovisual content on the Internet, including content on platforms like Tik Tok, YouTube, Spotify, and podcast clients.

Under Bill C-11, all platforms hosting audiovisual content that are not specifically excluded must make financial contributions to producing officially recognized “CanCon” – currently defined by a 1980s era points system built around legacy media broadcast media.

Does that system support Canadian storytelling? Unevenly at best. In recent years productions about US President Trump and the English Tudors have been greenlit as CanCon, while lavish productions of iconically Canadian stories like the Handmaid’s Tale and Turning Red have not met the standard.

I understand the value in juicing Canadian cultural exports. It is likely one of the reasons why many of the biggest names in music for decades have originated in Canada: Drake, the Weeknd, Justin Bieber, and Shawn Mendes have repeatedly landed in Billboard’s top ten artist charts for the past decade, as a sort of bulwark against largely American chart domination. Frequent radio airplay in Canada probably influenced the international success of those artists.

But modern web platforms look nothing like legacy broadcasting providers, and this bill is a ridiculous attempt to fit them into the same mould. Bhullar’s guide to the bill is a clearheaded look at how wrong this system would be in a streaming and digital platform context.

Adtech Company Report Finds Increasing Rate of iOS Users Opting Into Tracking

Adjust, an analytics and advertising technology firm, today released a mobile app trends report. Sadly, you are required to enter an email address to read the full report,1 but Filipe Espósito, of 9to5Mac, has summarized the part in question:

According to the research firm, the industry feared that the new App Tracking Transparency in iOS would hurt the mobile app market, which heavily relies on advertisements. In May 2021, opt-in rates were at around 16%. Now that number has grown to 25% a year later.

When it comes to games, the number is even higher – 30% of users have allowed developers to collect their data for advertisements. The numbers are based on a global research considering the 2,000 most popular apps in Adjust’s database. In some cases, popular games have achieved opt-in rates of up to 75%.

75% sounds very high to me. That particular stat comes from a year-old blog post that highlighted just four games: two with opt-in rates above 70%, and two at around 30%. All are from AppLovin. Interestingly, the two games with lower opt-in rates are from the PeopleFun brand, while the two higher opt-in rates are in games from the Lion Studios brand. Lion Studios makes a lot of samey apps; its latest release is, perhaps predictably, a Wordle clone.

The most puzzling thing to me is that these four games have exactly the same first-launch flow for gaining consent to track users, yet they are producing wildly varying results. The lower results are closer to data from Flurry Analytics showing an opt-in rate of about 18%. Adjust claims this is because the better-performing games were likely found through targeted advertising, so users see how sacrificing their privacy can benefit them:

For example, in the data presented above, Animal Transform and Save the Girl! are hyper casual games that are discovered by consumers via advertising. A large portion of their users will have found the games via ads and will therefore be likely to find other games/apps of interest through ads displayed within these games. […]

The key to achieving this high level of consent is to clearly and simply explain the value of consenting and sharing data in order to get relevant ads. […]

I am skeptical of this explanation. A lot of apps — a lot of things — are marketed through targeted advertising, and it seems unlikely to me that these games are special enough to diverge from that 18–30% range. Adjust also says this is due to the transparency around the consent prompts, but they are identical among these four apps.

A possible clue sits in the reviews of the four apps in question. While none of the four are listed as games for children and all have a 12+ rating, I noticed more children in the reviews of the higher-performing apps than of Wordscapes and Blockscapes.

At any rate, if 18–30% of iOS users are now opting into tracking, it is considerably higher than the 5% estimate in May 2021 or even the 16% in Adjust’s data from about the same time period. I do not like tracking, but maybe a quarter of people do. The important thing is giving users a choice and respecting it.


  1. Marketers think this is a great way to collect interested people to spam later, but they must either not know or not care about the number of throwaway email services out there. ↩︎

A Tour of Apple’s External LCD Displays

A nice thing about writing this website by myself and as a hobby is how I do not feel like I need to cover today’s insanity.

Here is a nice post from Stephen Hackett covering Apple’s history of standalone displays. Maybe the most interesting one to me was 1998’s Studio Display:

This Studio Display would end up spanning the change from beige plastic to more colorful designs, and would ship in three distinct Revisions:

  • Rev. A: Used a DB-15 connector and came in a graphite finish. Included ADB ports, as well a RCA jack for extra connectivity.

  • Rev. B (January 1999): Used VGA and came in new styling to Match the Blue and White G3, as seen below. Came with a price cut to $1,099.

  • Rev. C (August 1999): Used DVI and included 2 USB ports and was styled to match the early Power Mac G4

It launched at $1,999, so the $900 price cut less than a year after its launch seems notable. Also notable is how I have never seen one of these displays in the wild. I was probably too young at the time of its release, but I do remember seeing its transparent tripod-like successor.

The 2004 era of Cinema Displays remains my favourite, if only because the 30-inch model made such an impression on me at a young age. A good working model still fetches hundreds of dollars on eBay — a testament to its quality and longevity. I still love those aluminum enclosures with the glossy white plastic side panels and soft edges on the top and bottom. They were professional products, but approachable, too.

Mac App Store Apps Using In-App Purchases to Hide Free Apps That Need Subscriptions

Jeff Johnson:

Top Mac App Store dev abuses Free with In-App Purchase for bait-and-switch apps demanding upfront payment, not free in any respect.

This developer has 9 apps in the Mac App Store, all of which seem to have the same “business model”: free to download, with In-App Purchase, but the first time you open the app, it demands an upfront one-time purchase, otherwise it doesn’t work at all.

No trial, no subscription.

Stephen Warwick, iMore:

In response to this report, Fokusek Enterprise’s CEO contacted iMore with comment on the story. Tiberiu Prioteasa claims that the IAP monetization the developer uses “is used by most of the big companies such as NordVPN, Microsoft and many apps that provide Health, Lifestyle and Fitness apps from the Apple App Store,” noting that Apple has approved the use of this monetization process everytime it has been submitted to Apple. However, while lots of companies offer in-app purchases on the Mac App Store, and use auto-renewal after a free trial, Fokusek’s Docs Pro for Google Drive apps greets users with the following screen as soon as you open it: […]

This is the kind of thing Apple sought to prevent when it launched In-App Purchases as a feature for paid apps only. Opening them up to free apps has created different purchasing mechanisms in the App Store and has pushed the industry toward subscription pricing, but it has also enabled scummy behaviour like this.

Not that it matters much, but Prioteasa is not entirely wrong by pointing out how similar this model is to that of big-name companies. All of them offer a trial — unlike these crappy apps — but they are a bit of a bait-and-switch. You might see Microsoft PowerPoint as one of the top free apps on the Mac App Store, but to save or edit a presentation, you need to activate a trial that will roll over into a minimum monthly payment.1 Not really a free app, is it?


  1. Microsoft also pitches the subscription as being “as low as” the single-user price, but preselects the more expensive family subscription. Gross. ↩︎

Apple Is Throwing a Third Party

Apple commissioned another report — its third — from the Analysis Group:

Today, economists at Analysis Group published a new report on the proliferation of third-party apps on the App Store, with new insights into how third-party apps perform in categories ranging from maps to music streaming, among others. The report finds that third-party apps experience broad regional and global success on the App Store, demonstrating the breadth of opportunity for developers and the wide range of choice available to consumers around the world.

[…]

The report analyzes apps from Apple and third-party developers across many popular app types, breaking down regional and global top performers. It also highlights just how many channels developers now have to distribute their apps — from mobile platforms, to PCs, to video game consoles.

It is an interesting report (PDF) but it is not as comprehensive as Apple’s press release implies. Five app categories were analyzed in eight regions, using different metrics depending on the type of app. For example, the study’s authors correctly observe that many people use multiple messaging apps; it is not the type of app where a user gained in one client necessarily implies a lost user in another. Usage behaviour is likely different for music streaming apps, so the study’s authors used the time spent listening in each. That seems fair to me.

Music streaming is where I started to get puzzled as I read this report. There is a large table on page 14 indicating that, in Japan, Spotify has “0.4×>” the use of Apple’s Music app. How would you interpret the way that is written? I assumed it was a shorthand for 0.4 times greater use — that is how Apple displays it in a graphic in its press release — but then I read this bullet point on the following page:

There is only one country and one type of app considered for which the Apple app accounts for more than half of app usage: Music streaming in Japan (55%).

Well that clearly does not add up. Spotify’s share in Japan cannot be “0.4 times greater” than Apple’s 55%. I may be missing something, but I think the table is unclear. A better representation of this research is in Appendix B, beginning on page 20. There, you can see a more complete picture of app usage broken down by country and category. Note each category’s footnotes showing how the share was measured.

In Figure 12, we can see that Spotify is the most popular streaming music service in many regions, excluding China, Korea, and Japan. Japan is the only one where Apple Music listening time is highest and, assuming some rounding errors, Spotify is indeed 0.4× as popular as Apple Music, not more popular. Not a grievous error, to be sure, but a notable one given that it is the only category and country where Apple’s first-party app is so dominant.

We can check this work against the popularity of Google Maps in the U.S., which is shown in Apple’s press release to be “1.5× greater” than the use of Apple Maps. Figure 13 in the report indicates Apple Maps has 16 million daily iPhone users in the U.S., while Google Maps has 24 million.

An aside: remember when Apple was bragging about having three times as much usage of its maps app compared to, presumably, Google Maps? 2015 was ever so long ago, and being so wildly popular could now be considered a liability. Apple is happy to brag in its press release that Netflix is used thirty-five times more often by French users than Apple’s own TV app, and over two hundred times as often by Japanese users. In any other context, this would be an embarrassment.

So Figure 6, the table on page 14 indicating each app’s use relative to Apple’s, should not have greater-than signs beside each number. Some of the third-party apps highlighted in this report are used much less often than Apple’s own.

Having sorted that out, I want to turn your attention toward methodology, where I have questions. Mostly, that is because of this acknowledgement:

For privacy reasons, Apple has limited visibility into usage data. We therefore obtained data on downloads, daily active users, and time spent in app from data.ai (formerly App Annie), a third-party provider of mobile device app use data. We also use other publicly available information, including industry reports, news articles, and developer websites.

Apple may have commissioned this study, but it does not appear to have done its authors any favours in getting them proprietary real-world metrics. The report contains endnotes pointing to all of the data sources, and it seems Data.ai was used an awful lot. Given that Apple may limit its own knowledge of app usage, how is Data.ai collecting it?

Our data sources include: anonymized and aggregated data from over 1 million apps, sizable consumer panels, top ad networks, and more.

The company has a list of its partnerships, which are primarily ad networks, but it also collects data from apps like a data monitoring utility it owns. Unfortunately, despite promising “a new standard for trust and transparency”, the company does not provide a list of any other apps from which it collects usage data.

Does a combination of ad network partnerships and a sneaky consumption utility mean it is able to provide reliable figures on the use of, say, Messages or the Phone app? I find it hard to believe this is anything more than a best guess.

Some of these figures are surprising. But one that is not is Spotify’s market share. Bob Lefsetz:

We’ve been hearing all this b.s. about Apple catching up with Spotify, but just the opposite appears true, Spotify is pulling away from Apple where it counts, in listenership. Furthermore, the report says that Spotify is especially popular amongst the young, who listen most and are most responsible for the breaking of new artists.

Now in truth Amazon is a stealth competitor. But in reality, Spotify is the world’s default streaming music app.

Apple Music appears to pay a much higher rate than Spotify, but Spotify really does seem to be the brand name music app to Apple’s store brand. It has better playlists, better social features, and has probably escaped culpability in the public eye for financing a guy who just has some questions. And it appears on the cusp of lobbing more legal grief in Apple’s direction.

Apple prioritizes its Music app on iOS. It permits songs to be downloaded from the iTunes Store and added to a user’s library, all on an iPhone or iPad. Even if a third-party music store used the In-App Purchases mechanism, it is not possible for them to modify the Music library. But it seems many users do not care about that. They are happy keeping their music library siloed in whatever app they happen to be using. If they are using Spotify, they use the Spotify library; if they download a mixtape from DatPiff or want to support an indie artist more directly through Bandcamp, they must use each of those apps’ libraries. For the dedicated, this represents competition; for those with less patience, the winning app will be the one offering whatever they listen to most of the time.

It sure is an interesting time for technology policy at government and platform levels. All the findings in this report are the result of choices made primarily by Apple in its design of iOS and the App Store. It seems there is healthy competition in some categories of apps and in some regions. But this report is not comprehensive. Third-party apps have limitations Apple’s own versions do not, and there are many other categories where Apple’s entrant likely pulls ahead — browsers would be an especially interesting case because, although it is one of two types of app where you can set a system-level default on iOS, any third-party browser will still use Apple’s rendering engine.

I do not think this report is garbage; give it a read if you have time. But I think its shortcomings are enough to assume its figures are closer to an elastic estimate than actual data points.

AppsFlyer Report: Apple Benefits From App Tracking Transparency Rules

John Koetsier, Forbes:

Apple Search Ads has displaced Facebook as the best ad network for mobile marketers on iPhone and iPad, according to a new performance index from AppsFlyer. Apple’s ad network has significantly expanded since Apple changed marketing practices, hitting 60% of all its business from the first half of 2020 in just seven weeks this year.

[…]

We’re essentially seeing the continued rise of the platforms. 2021 wasn’t just good for Apple and its ad network: Google also did well in advertising to particularly Android but also iOS users. Ad engines built on owned platforms have inherent advantages that third-party ad networks are challenged to compete against.

Again, I believe Apple is committed to privacy values, generally speaking. But these conflicts of interest undermine its arguments.

Tim Cook’s Speech at the International Association of Privacy Professionals Conference 2022

Kif Leswing, CNBC:

Apple CEO Tim Cook on Tuesday criticized pending antitrust regulation in the U.S. and Europe, saying that some of the proposed policies would hurt iPhone user privacy and security.

Cook contended in a speech at the IAPP Global Privacy Summit in Washington, D.C., that regulator efforts to force Apple to allow iPhone users the option to install apps from the internet, called sideloading, could lead to a scenario where users can be tricked into installing malware and software that steals user data, citing reports of malicious apps on Android, on which sideloading is currently allowed.

Natasha Lomas, TechCrunch:

But the Apple CEO soon sought to intertwine threats to user privacy — which he’d suggested are countered by giving users more controls to make tracking them harder — with the broader issue of security threats, such as posed by malware like ransomware — going on to argue that security as an overarching bolster for privacy isn’t helped by giving users more control over the choice of third-party software they can download.

On the contrary, Cook argued, giving users a choice to step outside the “rigorous security protections” he suggested Apple has baked into the App Store (via the app review process) — by letting iOS users sideload apps or even choose to use a non-Apple app store entirely — would ultimately reduce their control by removing a “more secure choice.”

“I fear that we could soon lose the ability to provide some of those protections,” he suggested, framing looming competition-focused regulations as a risk to both “our privacy and security.”

Tim Cook:

We are deeply concerned about regulations that would undermine privacy and security in service of some other aim. Here in Washington and elsewhere, policymakers are taking steps — in the name of competition — that would force Apple to let apps onto iPhone that circumvent the App Store through a process called “sideloading”.

One could argue Apple’s resistance to this also serves to preserve its platform control status quo in the name of privacy. I believe Cook is deeply passionate about increasing user privacy and sees the current app distribution policies on iOS and iPadOS as the best balance between users’ interests and those of third parties. But those arguments are somewhat undermined by the financial and competitive benefits Apple reaps when it controls both the platform and its software distribution mechanism.

That is unfair: Apple has valued user privacy long before it even had an App Store or this distribution model. But it sure looks like a conflict of interest now.

Also, kudos to Cook for reminding people of the boring but essential benefits of end-to-end encryption for features like storing HomeKit videos in iCloud. We were reminded just recently how important it is to reduce access to user data — even by service providers. If only that applied to all iCloud data.

Tesla-Supporting ‘Bots’

Russ Mitchell, Los Angeles Times:

Kirsch and Chowdhury tracked 186 Tesla-related bot accounts and found that after each was launched, the company’s stock appreciated more than 2%. (They looked at the average stock return for the week previous to the bot’s creation and for the week following.) While Tesla’s market value has increased over the years, the price has seen dramatic ups and downs. The periods around bot creation showed sharp increases, but outside those windows, trading was far more volatile, Chowdhury said.

“This isn’t a causal relationship, but it does raise questions,” Kirsch said, about why there’s a correlation that does not appear to be random. “We’re trying to understand the mechanism. It can’t be just a bunch of tweets that push the stock. People have to notice them, interpret them and act on them.”

The researchers are looking at the timing of the tweets and options activity in the overnight stock market, among other factors. One big unknown: whether the bots are the work of entities with a direct financial interest in Tesla.

This report is very hand-wavy; the above three paragraphs are the closest it gets to a narrative more concrete than seemingly automated Twitter accounts commenting on stories about Musk or Tesla. These apparent bots are not listed anywhere I can see, though Mitchell reports an article about this will be released by Kirsch and Chowdhury in June, so perhaps a better picture will emerge around then.

Even so, I would be cautious about forming any particular narrative around this story. There is no indication of meaningful activity around these automated accounts, and “Twitter bots” seems like one of those phrases foundational to building mountains out of molehills.

Fresh Hell

Manuel Grabowski:

As a year-long Twitter user who’s always logged in on all devices, I didn’t really consciously notice how things deteriorated over time. But thanks to the fresh hell that every damn iOS app has its own integrated “browser”, even despite already having an account I now often see what Twitter unleashes on people not willing to succumb to their pleas for signing up.

The mix of desperate clingy behaviours from all kinds of websites — all social networks, but also retail and media and pretty much everything these days — combined with siloed browsers on iOS is a real crappy experience. I know the latter is a privacy feature, but it is not great when seemingly every site begs for your email address. Web marketers and “growth hackers”: nobody likes this. Please stop it.

Behavioural Spam

Ryan Broderick, Garbage Day:

Twitter is still a primarily text-based app, which means that syntactical memes can spread across the platform. A good example would be the “me: / nobody:” tweet format. A recent syntactical meme has completely overwhelmed Twitter, though. It starts with the phrase “we’re cancelling each other over…” and then you’re meant to post a “cancellable” take about some niche subject. I’ve seen tweets calling for cancellable takes about everything from Boston’s public transport to ghosts.

This sort of thing has always existed, but it has historically occupied a specific section of a BBS or forum. You could ignore it. In the blended world of a typical Twitter timeline, it seems unavoidable. It would be cool if we could universally minimize these kinds of patterns. But seeing as Twitter still thinks trending topics are a good idea I doubt we will get any controls to reduce popular post formats.

Data Brokers on ‘Last Week Tonight’

I have written an awful lot about data brokers for years now and others have been covering this industry for much longer. Yet it persists, and I am glad it is getting the kind of spotlight that John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” can throw on it. It is a good high-level overview, accurately covering many familiar stories, and will hopefully motivate more comprehensive reforms.

This video is only available in the United States right now, but I am sure you are a clever person.

Today’s Claim That Tesla Is on the Verge of Producing a Humanoid Robot, as Viewed From the Year 2032

Sam Shead, writing for CNBC in April 2022:

Tesla may start production of a humanoid robot known as Optimus as early as next year, CEO Elon Musk said Thursday.

[…]

“We have a shot of being in production for version one of Optimus hopefully next year,” Musk said Thursday at the opening of Tesla’s new vehicle assembly plant in Austin, Texas, where he appeared on stage — in a cowboy hat and sunglasses — to Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.”

Musk was, at best, spitballing with little more than a hope and a prayer. But this statement was similar to many of his previous claims which hid truth behind sensationalism. This tactic worked as a public relations strategy, creating years of breathless press coverage for Musk’s scarcely developed ideas and musings, but it repeatedly landed him in hot water with regulators.

Tesla has yet to reveal a working prototype of the robot, however, and it’s unclear how sophisticated Optimus is at this stage.

Tesla later pushed prototyping this robot years into the future as it sorted out a backlog of other promised products, including a pickup truck, a semi truck, and a sports car. Current prototypes cannot carry a mug of coffee without spilling it and tear clothing to shreds while attempting to fold it, and some have even played anti-union audio recordings on loop without any apparent way of shutting it off.

Musk has once again said a version of this robot will be delivered to customers next year, but researchers and other experts are skeptical anything like the version first shown in 2021 is around the corner.

When Musk first announced Tesla’s robot, he said it will be based on the same chips and sensors that the company’s cars use for self-driving features. […]

At the same media event, Musk also said a work-in-progress “beta” version of what the company then branded “Full Self Driving” would expand to all customers the same year. At the time, it was marketed as a level two system. This was a regression from years of assurance that level five autonomy would be delivered soon, something which has not yet been achieved. Empty promises like these coupled with the expensive Full Self Driving option pack led to numerous lawsuits and, ultimately, shareholders’ loss of confidence in Musk’s ability to deliver.

When reached for comment, Musk, now living on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, said he was starting a new company to turn cattle’s markings into mobile solar panels.

Worldcoin’s First Half-Million Test Users Are Treated More Like Unconsenting Subjects

Eileen Guo and Adi Renaldi, MIT Technology Review:

Gunungguruh was not alone in receiving a visit from Worldcoin. In villages across West Java, Indonesia — as well as college campuses, metro stops, markets, and urban centers in two dozen countries, most of them in the developing world — Worldcoin representatives were showing up for a day or two and collecting biometric data. In return they were known to offer everything from free cash (often local currency as well as Worldcoin tokens) to AirPods to promises of future wealth. In some cases they also made payments to local government officials. What they were not providing was much information on their real intentions.

This left many, including Ruswandi, perplexed: What was Worldcoin doing with all these iris scans?

This is a distressing read. It seems that Worldcoin, based in San Francisco, recruited people — primarily in developing countries like Indonesia and Kenya — to scan the irises of hundreds of thousands of others without their full understanding or consent. It says its privacy bonafides will improve as it grows, but it is providing little information about how it is treating the sensitive data it has collected so far, excusing these practices by its small size:

“I’m not sure if you’re aware of this,” he [Worldcoin CEO Alex Blania] said, “but you looked at the testing operation of a Series A company. It’s a few people trying to make something work. It’s not like an Uber, with like hundreds of people that did this many, many times.”

[…]

By the time we spoke to Blania in March, Worldcoin had already scanned 450,000 eyes, faces, and bodies in 24 countries. Of those, 14 are developing nations, according to the World Bank. Eight are located in Africa. But the company was just getting started — its aim is to garner a billion sign-ups by 2023.

If you are planning to scale from hundreds of thousands to a billion people in a year — a laughable goal, but bear with me — you cannot use the excuse of an early stage startup. Exploiting poor people for their biometric data with financial incentives is scummy enough; treating privacy as a problem for later is inexcusable.

Unsurprisingly, Clearview AI Aims to Branch Out Beyond Police

Matt O’Brien and Tali Arbel, the Associated Press:

A controversial face recognition company that’s built a massive photographic dossier of the world’s people for use by police, national governments and — most recently — the Ukrainian military is now planning to offer its technology to banks and other private businesses.

[…]

The new “consent-based” product would use Clearview’s algorithms to verify a person’s face, but would not involve its ever-growing trove of some 20 billion images, which [Clearview CEO Hoan] Ton-That said is reserved for law enforcement use. Such ID checks that can be used to validate bank transactions or for other commercial purposes are the “least controversial use case” of facial recognition, he said.

Remember when the company promised to only allow law enforcement uses? Ton-That killed that principle earlier this year. If Clearview could have operated with individual consent, it would have obtained it already.

Every day this company is allowed to keep operating represents an increasing policy failure.

9.2% and the Master of Twitter

Ranjan Roy, Margins:

It’s wild to think about. The U.S. government regulator has been in a fight with the world’s richest man over his ability to use a communications platform that’s vital to his business interests — and he just went and effectively bought the platform. Both Can and I have repeatedly written about the emerging market-ification of the U.S., and this really feels like another one of those moments where we look back on and remember how we all posted memes as it happened.

Does any of this sound healthy to you? Because it sounds to me like a personal vendetta has gotten mixed up in financial nihilism by someone who has a famously untethered grasp on reality.

Here Comes the Online News Act

John Paul Tasker, CBC News:

The federal Liberal government introduced legislation Tuesday to force digital giants to compensate news publishers for the use of their content.

The new regulatory regime would require companies like Google and the Meta Platforms-owned Facebook — and other major online platforms that reproduce or facilitate access to news content — to either pay up or go through a binding arbitration process led by an arms-length regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

That these two companies — which, combined, account for 80% of Canadian online ad revenue — have made it far more difficult for publishers, generally speaking, to maintain their ad-supported model of funding is not news. This problem is not limited to Canadian media outlets; this is a worldwide issue.

One justification I can almost buy for taxing these large platforms is because they have consolidated online advertising revenues to fund two American companies. But the act of linking out is a laughable rationale:

Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez said Canada’s news businesses should be compensated for helping Google and Facebook attract eyeballs.

“The news sector is in crisis,” Rodriguez told a press conference Tuesday. “Traditionally, advertising has been a major source of revenue for the news business. That’s less and less the case. I would say the reality is grim.”

Google and Facebook use news content on their sites “without really having to pay for it. With this bill, we’re seeking to address that market imbalance,” Rodriguez said.

That is not really the imbalance, is it? Google and Facebook send traffic to news websites and display, at most, a headline and snippet of a given article. It is the advertising market where publishers have been unable to keep up, though that is partly true because individual newspapers in Saskatoon and Saguenay do not have the infrastructure to create a mechanism for tracking people all over the web to create ad profiles.

Michael Geist:

The government’s plans effectively require compensation without something deserving of compensation. That is best described as a shakedown. The availability of news on Internet platforms is largely limited to links to news articles that refer users back to the original source (full length articles are licensed). There is no copyright violation for linking to content, the posts come from users or the media companies themselves, and there is value to the publishers in the form of the referrals to the full content.

[…]

This is not to suggest that the news has no value. Obviously it does. However, the news has limited value to the Internet platforms, which represents a tiny fraction of overall traffic. In considering how platforms have responded to similar measures in the past, previous attempts to mandate licensing of news articles in Spain and Germany led Google to remove the content from its news service. As a result of the Google news shut down in Spain, studies found publisher website traffic dropped by 10 per cent, demonstrating the value that free referral links provide to news publishers.

This is like requiring compensation for a bibliography. Is the Heritage Minister planning on going after high school essay writers next? They also excerpt materials, citing each instance with links.

I view this law with slightly less doom-and-gloom than Geist, though I still find it unfavourable. Geist writes that traffic to news websites in Spain dropped by 10% after the federal government there imposed a link tax, citing “studies”. But a report from the not unbiased News Media Alliance found little long-term effect on Spanish news sites, and Google News is set to relaunch in Spain this year after adopting a model similar to Australia’s.

But, while the model there has been a financial windfall for some publishers, it has not necessarily helped independent outlets. Tasker, CBC:

According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, more than $190 million has been paid already to Australian media companies since the model was enacted last year. The big winners have been legacy media and larger media outlets.

The Canadian proposal is, according to Tasker, similar to the Australian one and, according to Geist, it seems likely to produce similar results. The CBC, Postmedia, and a handful of others will be rewarded handsomely, while independent publishers will still fight for directly-paying subscribers. Large technology and advertising companies will continue to be large and dominate their markets, and publishers will need to run to them hat in hand for their monthly stipend.

The good news, if there is any, is that the market for small publishers is growing in Canada and the United States. Keep supporting your local startup news-gathering operation directly, because link tax laws like these probably will not be helpful.

Apple Confirms Disney Is Part of a Subscription-Related ‘Pilot’

Sarah Perez, of TechCrunch, followed up on that weird Disney Plus subscription behaviour:

An Apple spokesperson did not dispute the accuracy of the developers’ claims we presented and said this was part of a pilot test.

“We are piloting a new commerce feature we plan to launch very soon. The pilot includes developers across various app categories, organization sizes and regions to help test an upcoming enhancement that we believe will be great for both developers and users, and we’ll have more details to share in the coming weeks,” the spokesperson said.

I guess we know one of this year’s WWDC announcements.

On its face, giving developers the ability to raise prices without explicit user confirmation seems extremely risky. Apple has faced many problems with developers abusing app subscriptions in the past. I am obviously curious about what systems will be in place to prevent even worse behaviour.

Tweets, But Editable

Twitter Comms (capitalization, sic):

yes, we’ve been working on an edit feature since last year!

no, we didn’t get the idea from a poll 😉

we’re kicking off testing within @TwitterBlue Labs in the coming months to learn what works, what doesn’t, and what’s possible.

I guess there is a reason to pay for Twitter Blue.

Twitter’s “Head of Consumer Product” Jay Sullivan:

Without things like time limits, controls, and transparency about what has been edited, Edit could be misused to alter the record of the public conversation. Protecting the integrity of that public conversation is our top priority when we approach this work.

Therefore, it will take time and we will be actively seeking input and adversarial thinking in advance of launching Edit. We will approach this feature with care and thoughtfulness and we will share updates as we go.

Twitter’s slow pace is sort of understandable. If it simply made it possible to change a tweet, it would not take long for people to update a popular tweet with millions of impressions from “retweet if you love puppies” to “retweet if you are a proud Klan member”, or turn it into some cryptocurrency scam. Given how media-focused Twitter is and its outsized effect on conversation, it is also possible that less scrupulous journalists would update breaking news tweets without acknowledging changes.

But, still, when this launches, it will be a true finally moment.

WWDC 2022 Begins June 6 Online

Apple:

In addition to the online conference, Apple will host a special day for developers and students at Apple Park on June 6 to watch the keynote and State of the Union videos together, along with the online community. Space will be limited, and details about how to apply to attend will be provided on the Apple Developer site and app soon.

I give myself one thousand points for guessing the week and, no, I do not care that it was obvious.

Based on this phrasing, it seems like in-person attendees will watch the pre-recorded kickoff presentation and State of the Union video; do not expect a full in-person keynote. Maybe Tim Cook’s opening remarks will be delivered live, but that is the most I would assume, though I would be happy to be proved wrong.

Please Like Me

Elon Musk”, the Onion:

I spent nine hours on Twitter today. For a few of those hours, I was reading and responding to tweets while on my private jet being whisked from Austin to San Francisco and back again. Picture me, if you will, sitting in a comfortable seat on my own airplane, zooming through the clouds from one important meeting to another. I should be sipping a cocktail and loving life, right? Instead, I’m up there growing more and more depressed as I read hundreds—nay, thousands—of replies, quote tweets, and subtweets from people insulting me and my projects. Why? Why do people do this? Why don’t you like me?

All I want is for you to be nice to me. Please be nice to me. Please be my friend. Will you be my friend?

You can even just pretend to be my friend, if you want.

Please.

He makes a compelling case.

Elon Musk to Join Twitter’s Board of Directors, Capping His Financial Involvement in the Company

Jessica Bursztynsky, CNBC:

Elon Musk will join Twitter’s board of directors after taking a 9.2% stake in the social media company. The news sent shares up more than 6% in the morning.

[…]

Musk’s term is set to expire in 2024, according to a filing with the SEC. For his entire board term or 90 days after, Musk cannot be the beneficial owner of more than 14.9% of the company’s common stock outstanding.

This arrangement should give him the influence he so clearly desires without permitting the whole-cloth takeover otherwise possible due to his wealth. It still looks hinky from a regulatory perspective, but I am sure the SEC knows how to find Musk.

Update: As of April 10, Musk will not join Twitter’s board.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Aaron Tilley, Wall Street Journal:

[Brad] Smith, a Microsoft veteran of almost 30 years and president for seven, has maneuvered his company to an enviable position in a regulatory environment that is increasingly hostile toward tech titans. Once an antitrust pariah itself, Microsoft is now widely seen by regulators as the friendly party among today’s top tech companies, a status government officials and Microsoft insiders say flows largely from Mr. Smith’s cultivation of friends in Washington.

Rivals say he is also skilled at directing negative attention toward competitors — to Microsoft’s benefit.

I am sure Smith’s experience at Microsoft in the late 1990s and early 2000s gave him a valuable perspective on how to adapt to antitrust and oversight concerns, and it sounds like the company really is changing in key ways. But Tilley’s reporting indicates Microsoft evades scrutiny mostly because of Smith’s close friendships with lawmakers. Not so mysterious, is it?

Tilley:

Mr. Smith’s strategy has been to cooperate with regulators who often have Microsoft’s rivals in the crosshairs. He has criticized Apple’s operation of its App Store — as Microsoft tries to bring its “Netflix for gaming” service to the iPhone. He has supported measures to cut into Facebook and Google’s dominance of digital advertising — which could benefit Microsoft’s search and digital-ad businesses. His support of tech-sector regulations has cut against efforts by Amazon, Microsoft’s fierce rival in cloud computing, to fight constraints on its business practices.

So long as regulators do not look too closely at which operating system every computer in their office runs on, where their email comes from, or how everything works together without any real alternative choices, Microsoft seems free to complain about how its revenue streams are not entirely dominant in every market it participates in.

The Banned Word List in Amazon’s Forthcoming Chat App for Workers Includes ‘Union’, ‘Ethics’, and ‘Fairness’

[Ken Klippenstein][kk], the Intercept:

In November 2021, Amazon convened a high-level meeting in which top executives discussed plans to create an internal social media program that would let employees recognize co-workers’ performance with posts called “Shout-Outs,” according to a source with direct knowledge.

[…]

But company officials also warned of what they called “the dark side of social media” and decided to actively monitor posts in order to ensure a “positive community.” At the meeting, Clark suggested that the program should resemble an online dating app like Bumble, which allows individuals to engage one on one, rather than a more forum-like platform like Facebook.

Following the meeting, an “auto bad word monitor” was devised, constituting a blacklist that would flag and automatically block employees from sending a message that contains any profane or inappropriate keywords. In addition to profanities, however, the terms include many relevant to organized labor, including “union,” “grievance,” “pay raise,” and “compensation.” Other banned keywords include terms like “ethics,” “unfair,” “slave,” “master,” “freedom,” “diversity,” “injustice,” and “fairness.” Even some phrases like “This is concerning” will be banned.

Moderating discussion boards is hard, but it is perhaps not the best indication of a healthy work environment when people cannot mention “living wage” or “restrooms” for fear of overt negativity.

Apple’s Pro Mac Reboot, Five Years Later

How times have changed since Apple held that infamous “roundtable” discussion five years ago.

At the time, and for the next couple of years, the Mac was in its blunder years. Many models had not been updated in years, and still had some way to go even after this discussion. Every laptop was equipped with an unreliable keyboard. There was a sense Apple was uninterested in the Mac, and may perhaps discontinue its highest-end desktop hardware, which sold “a single-digit percent” of all Macs.

This discussion reset expectations. Apple really was committed to the Mac, even in its most niche markets, and it wanted to do things right. Five years later, the difference is a complete transformation. Then, it was hard for me to recommend any Mac to a friend; now, the Mac lineup is a question of what level of performance and excellence you desire. This press meeting felt like a turning point from one extreme to the other — eventually.

High on my wish list of articles for someone with the right connections to write is a deeply reported look at the Mac’s doldrums. It cannot all be due to stagnation in Intel’s processor lineup around the same time, or any one individual. Something else happened — or, more likely, many somethings else. I want to know what they are.

Music Catalogue Edge Cases

This list of music organization edge cases from Julien Voisin checks so many of the boxes of stuff I am interested in. Music? I love it. Bizarre computer behaviour? That sounds fun. Nitpicky questions about catagorization? Sign me up.

Voisin’s list is extensive, but let me add a few entries:

  • Voisin mentions multiple versions of the same album, like international versions or different masters. Along similar lines, there are iterative albums, like Kanye West’s “The Life of Pablo”. I have four versions of that album, as West made significant changes between each release — and that is not every version of “Pablo” I could have in my library.

  • One release could also be stored in multiple file types — for example, lossless and lossy versions.

  • Multiple artists may appear on all album tracks. For example, Jay-Z and Kayne West’s “Watch the Throne”, or the multiple collaborations between Burial, Four Tet, and sometimes Thom Yorke. I would love to see those albums under each artist’s releases in my library. This could be corrected if each artist on a release was treated more like a tag.

  • Genres are weird, too. For example, the latest Swallow the Sun record has a metal first “disc”, and modern classical on its second “disc”. Some albums are all over the place genre-wise. Treating genres as tags, too, would help.

My experience is primarily with Apple’s own music apps, and these things may be improved in other applications.

Apple Turns Its U.S. Lobbying Efforts Toward LGBTQ Rights

Emily Birnbaum, Politico:

Apple is quietly mobilizing its vast resources to lobby against anti-LGBTQ legislation proliferating across the country — an unusual push by one of the world’s most valuable companies into a consequential political debate.

[…]

Apple’s senior director of corporate communications, Fred Sainz, this month pressed leaders of fellow Fortune 500 companies to denounce an order by the Texas governor that called for child abuse investigations of parents who provide transgender children with gender-affirming care despite opposition from doctors.

“I’m reaching out from Apple because we’re hoping you’ll join us and lend your company’s name to a critical issue,” wrote Sainz, who was formerly the vice president of communications and marketing at the HRC, in an email to his corporate affairs counterparts on March 5.

“Apple has joined the effort and will lend its name and logo,” Sainz said in the email, obtained by POLITICO. “I’m reaching out because we are hoping you will too.” Ultimately, 60 other organizations signed on to the letter, which was published in The Dallas Morning News on March 11.

Good.

Apple used to be a quieter lobbyist, but its efforts increased significantly in 2017 and have stayed higher in subsequent years than before. Last year, it was the fourth biggest spender in the electronics manufacturing category, spending less than first-place Oracle, Microsoft, and Qualcomm. The vast majority of its efforts are in areas you might expect: trying to swat away antitrust laws or anything that might affect the App Store, taxes, navigating changes to import and export laws, and intellectual property. But it does reserve some of its lobbying strength for civil rights issues and combatting anti-immigration policies, especially in recent years.

If Apple wants to increase its lobbying involvement for social issues, I am glad to see it is on the right side, especially in light of the increasingly deranged media coverage of LGTBQ-adjacent issues and the dehumanizing legislation being passed in several states.

One of the states where aggressively vile anti-LGBTQ policies are being pursued is Texas. A whole lot of companies, undoubtably lured by tax incentives, expanded their operations in the state in recent years. Their signatures on the Human Rights Campaign letter are important. But it is not as though Texas was known for its support of queer rights when those companies decided to build a greater presence in the state. Public shaming is one thing, and lobbying shows that Apple is one of the companies putting money in the game, but Texas is still reaping economic benefits despite its miserable discrimination.

Ex-Jalopnik Writers Launch New Automotive News Site

David Tracy and Jason Torchinsky launched the Autopian today:

Welcome to The Autopian, the ultimate car-culture website run by two of your favorite former Jalopnik authors/dipshits, David Tracy and Jason Torchinsky! It’s been a long road for these two and their awesome business partner Beau Boeckmann, and there’s still a ton of work ahead. We’re all excited to see what you think of our new site, so welcome to launch day!

Tracy and Torchinsky were two of my favourite writers at Jalopnik, so it is great to see them finding the space and funding to do their own thing. G/O Media sure is bleeding talented writers: in addition to these Jalopnik-ers, the entire Deadspin team resigned to create Defector, which is going well, and the Root is struggling to retain writers due to management problems.

There Is a Way to Restore Wider Alerts in MacOS Big Sur and Monterey

I have my gripes with the current generation of the MacOS visual design language that used to be called Aqua. There are several things I hope to see changed, and many of those things are more evolutionary updates. But if I were in Alan Dye’s shoes, I know the first thing I would change on my first day: I would have alert panels reverted to their previous and far superior presentation.

Happily, that is possible today, thanks to a tip from Léo Natan (via Michael Tsai):

Do you prefer the old style macOS alerts? There is a way to get them globally for AppKit in Big Sur and Monterey:

defaults write -g NSAlertMetricsGatheringEnabled -bool false

I applied this immediately, restarted an app I was using, triggered an alert — and everything is suddenly better. The clouds parted, sun rays danced in my office, my coffee tasted just a little bit sweeter. There is still work to do on things like buttons, which remain a barely-differentiated grey blob resting on the grey background of the dialog, but it is an undeniable upgrade.

Watch this get ripped out of the next major version.

Also, what is up with the name of this preference key? What does it mean that I am disabling alert metrics gathering?

Update: Ben Sargent has a strong theory:

If I had to guess: NSAlert (the dialog) Metrics (size of the dialog) GatheringEnabled (gather the content into a hideous vertical silo)

Makes sense to me.

Food Delivery Leak Unmasks Russian Security Agents

Aric Toler, of Bellingcat, explored leaked data from Yandex’s food delivery division to uncover plenty of orders from Russian intelligence officers:

Steady streams of data flow out of Russia for a number of reasons, but the most obvious include petty corruption, pervasive human error and the state’s own comprehensive surveillance laws being turned against them.

Following the “Yarovaya Laws” being adopted in 2016, Russian telecom operators were required to maintain customer data. This data was intended just for the security services to use, but is also often illicitly sold to online buyers. Thus, a law meant to strengthen the FSB and other security services has been used against them when Bellingcat and other investigative outlets acquire the retained telecom data of FSB officers to reveal wrongdoing.

Other delivery apps could — and should — dispose of this data immediately, but those in Russia are obligated to retain it. It turns out that police states face exactly the same vulnerabilities as anywhere else, but their policies ensure greater liabilities.

Meta’s Dirty Tricks Campaign Against TikTok

Taylor Lorenz and Drew Harwell, the Washington Post:

Facebook parent company Meta is paying one of the biggest Republican consulting firms in the country to orchestrate a nationwide campaign seeking to turn the public against TikTok.

The campaign includes placing op-eds and letters to the editor in major regional news outlets, promoting dubious stories about alleged TikTok trends that actually originated on Facebook, and pushing to draw political reporters and local politicians into helping take down its biggest competitor. These bare-knuckle tactics, long commonplace in the world of politics, have become increasingly noticeable within a tech industry where companies vie for cultural relevance and come at a time when Facebook is under pressure to win back young users.

Employees with the firm, Targeted Victory, worked to undermine TikTok through a nationwide media and lobbying campaign portraying the fast-growing app, owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance, as a danger to American children and society, according to internal emails shared with The Washington Post.

Zac Moffatt, Targeted Victory’s CEO, disputed this reporting on Twitter, but many of his complaints are effectively invalid. He complains that only part of the company’s statement was included by the Post, but the full statement fits into a tweet and is pretty vacuous. The Post says the company refused to answer specific questions, which Moffatt has not disputed.

Moffatt also says the Post called two letters to the editor a “scorched earth campaign”, but the oldest copy of the story I could find, captured just twenty minutes after publishing and well before Moffatt tweeted, does not contain that phrasing, and neither does the current copy. I am not sure where that is from.

But one thing Moffatt does nail the Post on, a little bit, is its own reporting on TikTok moral panics. For example, the “slap a teacher challenge” was roundly debunked when it began making headlines in early October 2021 and was traced back to rumours appearing on Facebook a month earlier, but that did not stop the Post from reporting on it. It appears Targeted Victory used the Post’s reporting, among that from other publications, to further concerns about this entirely fictional story. That is embarrassing for the Post, which cited teachers and school administrators for its story.

The Post should do better. But it is agencies like Targeted Victory that the Post and other media outlets should be steeling themselves against, as well as in-house corporate public relations teams. When reporters receive a tip about a company’s behaviour — positive or negative — the source of that information can matter as much as the story itself. It is why I still want more information about the Campaign for Accountability’s funders: it has been successful in getting media outlets to cover its research critical of tech companies, but its history with Oracle has muddied the waters of its ostensibly pure concern. Oracle also tipped off Quartz reporters to that big Google location data scandal a few years ago. These sources are not neutral. While the stories may be valid, readers should not be misled about their origin.

Facebook News Feed Bug Mistakenly Elevated Misinformation for Months Instead of Demoting It

Alex Heath, the Verge:

A group of Facebook engineers identified a “massive ranking failure” that exposed as much as half of all News Feed views to potential “integrity risks” over the past six months, according to an internal report on the incident obtained by The Verge.

The engineers first noticed the issue last October, when a sudden surge of misinformation began flowing through the News Feed, notes the report, which was shared inside the company last week. Instead of suppressing posts from repeat misinformation offenders that were reviewed by the company’s network of outside fact-checkers, the News Feed was instead giving the posts distribution, spiking views by as much as 30 percent globally. Unable to find the root cause, the engineers watched the surge subside a few weeks later and then flare up repeatedly until the ranking issue was fixed on March 11th.

One of the things I think about a lot is why problems such as this one have basically no repercussions for the companies that create them. In this case, this bug was only made public because someone leaked the internal report, and its possible consequence was significant — Heath writes that it “impacted up to half of News Feed views over a period of months”. But it does not matter, not really. Facebook’s reputation is in the tank and it will not lose users because of this, nor will advertisers pull funds. It does not matter that Facebook increased the spread of bullshit instead of responsibly slowing it, apart from in all the subtle ways it does matter that its massive user base was increasingly misinformed.

It is amazing the harm that can be excused by attributing it to machine learning or algorithmic flaws.

Apple Updates Its Entitlement Rules for Using External Payments in Dutch Dating Apps

Apple:

Since February of this year, developers of dating apps on the App Store in the Netherlands have been able to use the StoreKit External Purchase Entitlement or the StoreKit External Purchase Link Entitlement to enable the capability to sell services through a payment system other than Apple’s in-app purchase system. Apple established these entitlements as part of our plan to comply with a recent Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets (ACM) order. Today we’ve introduced changes to these entitlements, which include:

[…]

[…] Consumer Disclosures: Apps that use either entitlement need to include an in-app modal sheet that explains to users that they’re going to make purchases through an external payment system, and the potential impact that choice could have on the user. Apple is adjusting the language on the modal sheet and reducing the number of times the sheet must be displayed.

The new language is more subdued than its misleading predecessor, and it is one of three modest changes made to this entitlement’s use. The biggest change is that developers no longer have to submit an entirely separate binary for using this entitlement in the Dutch App Store. The big question for Apple is whether this will appease regulators there.

The big question for me is whether this purchase flow will be expanded beyond dating apps and outside of the Netherlands. It is becoming quite polished, and permitting it within an existing binary seems like a possible — albeit unlikely — path toward broader use. Of course, Apple also makes it know that it continues to disagree with the ruling and is appealing it, so my question is probably answered.

Hackers Gaining Power of Subpoena via Fake ‘Emergency Data Requests’

Brian Krebs:

There is a terrifying and highly effective “method” that criminal hackers are now using to harvest sensitive customer data from Internet service providers, phone companies and social media firms. It involves compromising email accounts and websites tied to police departments and government agencies, and then sending unauthorized demands for subscriber data while claiming the information being requested can’t wait for a court order because it relates to an urgent matter of life and death.

Bold. Yet again, the most effective techniques for illicitly obtaining information are confidence tricks, not technical expertise. People Krebs interviewed acknowledge this kind of attack is virtually impossible to defend against without, in the words of one security specialist, “completely redoing how we think about identity on the internet on a national scale”. I am sure that is true an international scale, too; these requests are sent by law enforcement agencies around the world in a legitimate capacity, which opens them all up to fraud.

William Turton, Bloomberg:

Apple and Meta provided basic subscriber details, such as a customer’s address, phone number and IP address, in mid-2021 in response to the forged “emergency data requests.” Normally, such requests are only provided with a search warrant or subpoena signed by a judge, according to the people. However, the emergency requests don’t require a court order.

Snap Inc. received a forged legal request from the same hackers, but it isn’t known whether the company provided data in response. It’s also not clear how many times the companies provided data prompted by forged legal requests.

Discord also provided data, according to Krebs.

Moderation Supports the Principles of Free Speech

Mike Masnick, of Techdirt, with a full-throated defence of the concepts of society and context in general:

The internet itself is an incredible platform for free speech, and we should be fighting to keep that wider internet open and free from too much regulatory burden and limits. But part of the reason the internet is such an incredible platform is that on the internet, anyone is able to find different communities that they feel are appropriate for them. Or to create their own without first having to get permission.

The people who demand that someone else’s community must conform to their standards aren’t supporting “principles of free speech,” they’re demanding others bend to their wills.

Exactly right.

Privileged App Store Behaviour for Disney Plus Subscriptions

Max Seelemann:

iOS biz people… Subscription price increase as mere NOTICE instead of having to confirm, else subs expires.

Is this new behavior for everyone or exclusive to Disney+?

Normally when developers increase the price of a subscription, the user is supposed to be prompted several times to agree to the new rate. If they do not, their subscription will not automatically renew.

In this case, an App Store sheet is informing users that a price change is happening. The most obvious action is an “OK” button on the sheet. There is no “Cancel” button, but there is tiny text above the “OK” button that says “review your subscription” if someone wants to cancel.

This is not generally available to developers.

Michael Tsai:

In a few years, we’ll be told there was already an “established program” for this.

Yet another special arrangement between large companies. Does anyone still think it is a mystery why developers do not trust the App Store process?

The problem is not that Apple gives special privileges to larger or more trusted developers. That can make sense — can you imagine how many crappy CarPlay apps would distract drivers if any app could use that entitlement? The problem is that Apple continues to peddle the lie that it treats every developer the same. That is completely untrue, and Apple’s representatives know it is untrue.

Update: Nikhil Nigade:

Every one seems to be missing an important bit here: this was ready to go when Disney wanted it.

Did it ship with iOS 15.4? Prior to that?

Excellent questions. Has this quietly been in iOS for years, or was this behaviour created between Apple and Disney specifically for this circumstance?

The Possible Impact of the Digital Markets Act on Messaging Privacy

Casey Newton interviewed Will Cathcart, who runs WhatsApp, about the unknown effects of the E.U.’s recently advanced Digital Markets Act. Cathcart has concerns about what this means for the ability of a specific platform to control for spam, and is one of many who worries about what messaging service interoperability may mean for security and privacy:

Over the weekend, cryptography experts sounded the alarm about this idea, saying that platforms might not be able to do this in a way that leaves messages encrypted. As Alex Stamos of the Stanford Internet Observatory put it to me: “Writing the law to say ‘You should allow for total interoperability without creating any privacy or security risks’ is like just ordering doctors to cure cancer.”

[…]

[…] it’s clear that, to the extent that there might be a way for services like iMessage and WhatsApp to interoperate and preserve encryption, that way has yet to be invented.

At the very least, it hasn’t yet been built.

To be clear, it does not appear that the draft law mandates the creation of no privacy or security risks; the segment posted by Benedict Evans — the full draft text is currently confidential — says platform providers must create a “high level of security and personal data protection”. It is about finding an appropriate level of risk with the caveat that it will never get to zero. But the core of the question seems correct: is there a way to make encrypted messaging services work together while ensuring negligible difference in security and privacy levels?

It is worth reading Newton’s piece in full because it is quite good, but this paragraph bugged me:

It’s also worth asking what interoperability will actually do to make the messaging market more competitive. Email is an open, interoperable standard and has been for decades; but today, Apple, Google, and Microsoft own around 90 percent of the market. Meanwhile, the market for messaging apps is much more dynamic even without interoperability: it includes apps from Meta, Telegram, Signal, Snap, and others.

In the second sentence, Newton conflates the open protocol of email with the market share of email clients. These are not comparable — at least, not in this way. For what it is worth, in terms of email servers that W3 Techs is able to query, Google and Microsoft do indeed dominate, but the third most popular provider is Newfold Digital Group, better known as the worst collection of hosts on the web. This is followed by a list of over a hundred other providers used by at least 0.1% of all domains.

Since it is an open standard, anyone with the technical knowledge can deploy an email server or create a client to improve upon it. That benefits users because the ability to use email is not tied to any specific company, and someone may use a client with a feature set that is more appealing to their needs. Imagine if you could download an iMessage client that gave you capabilities Apple’s own app does not, or removes unnecessary features.

In the final quoted sentence above, Newton says the messaging market is more competitive. I am not sure that is correct — it is not possible to separate protocol from client, so a direct comparison is not fair. But it is possible there are so many messaging clients used by so many people because each of our friends use a different mix. We are never trying to use messaging apps; we are only trying to communicate with people. It would be great if all of my messages from any provider could be collected in a single application in much the same way that my emails from different accounts on different hosts all appear in the same inbox. I would prefer that. But it is not possible with today’s applications, so I must switch between a handful of apps to chat with all of my friends.

Remember Adium? That is a great piece of software I have not touched in about ten years as phone-centred messaging clients have replaced desktop-based ones. Something like that could be possible again. If that is possible, it cannot be at the expense of privacy and security.

The EFF Calls on U.S. Policymakers to Ban Online Behavioural Advertising

Bennett Cyphers and Adam Schwartz of the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

Given these severe harms, EFF calls on Congress and the states to ban the targeting of ads to people based on their online behavior. This ban must be narrowly tailored to protect privacy and equity without placing unnecessary burdens on speech and innovation.

Legislators should focus on the personal data most central to targeted ads: our online behavior. This includes the web searches we conduct, the web pages we visit, the mobile apps we use, the digital content we view or create, and the hour we go online. It also includes the ways our online devices document our offline lives, such as our phones using GPS to track our geolocation or fitness trackers monitoring our health.

I see this going nowhere in the real world, but it is a good summary of the harms caused by behaviourally-targeted advertising and a strong call to action. One thing I fail to see in this document is a response for small business owners who have been lured by the possibility of cheap and precise ads. Though I understand why these ads are appreciated by those with limited budgets, I think this entire industry is built on flawed principles. It is not fair for everyone online to be required to forego any sense of privacy so our neighbourhoods can continue to have independently-owned businesses. But there needs to be a better answer.

Power for Everyone, for Some Flexible Definition of ‘Everyone’

Joshua Ginter, responding to my question about what capabilities are unlocked by increasingly powerful computers in the hands of more people:

In real life, there are other real jobs that benefit from new technology too. Plumbers and electricians. Carpenters. Oil rig workers. Farmers. Each benefit from new technology in their own way. I’d love to hear from these sorts of folks — stories about how their working lives have changed due to a new Mac, a new iPhone, or a new iPad.

I put my question about this in the context of creative professionals because that is what I am and that is how Apple is positioning the Mac Studio, though I am also curious about the many things powerful computers like these will unlock for other professions. I remember when my Twitter timeline would explode in mockery when those marketing films would play during an Apple keynote, showing people using iPads in wind turbines and rescue helicopters. It was a vision of what became possible with a different form factor, high-resolution displays, cellular connectivity, and a great tablet operating system.

I am excited to see what is enabled by the Mac Studio and products like it. It performs comparably to the highest-end Intel Mac Pro at a fraction of its cost. Making extraordinary computing power more accessible will surely have some fascinating consequences.

Good Luck Owning a Copy of This Year’s ‘Best Picture’ Winner

Clayton Davis, Variety:

It’s been no secret that Netflix has long harbored ambitions to be the first digital video player to take home the Academy Awards’ most prestigious honor, spending lavishly to promote the likes of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” (2018), Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” (2019) and David Fincher’s “Mank” (2020). The investment has yielded lots of nominations, but has not paid off with the major recognition that Netflix was seeking. Instead, the Netflix team had to clap as Apple Original Films, one of the scores of new streaming players that have launched in recent years, got Best Picture bragging rights.

nougatmachine”:

This is a legal, officially sanctioned DVD of the movie Coda, an Apple Original (Apple Inc.’s name for their exclusive original movies on the Apple TV+ streaming service). This is not just any DVD, this is a DVD from the consumer electronics company that arguably has done more to bury DVDs than any other.

[…]

The Oscars’ theatrical requirements have been an infamous bone of contention for streaming media, but industry insiders have long been able to prepare for awards season at home. Distributors seeking votes send the “screeners” you may have heard of to members of the production guilds, critic associations, academy members, etc — any organization with members voting in film awards. While the option to stream screeners now exists, DVD screeners remain a product in the industry’s lineup. Presumably, the stereotypical 85 year-old Oscar voter can’t be trusted to have good internet, and so the discs keep coming. As a member of the illuminati one of these groups, I was bemused to see that Apple’s quest for awards show clout has led to me receiving a DVD of an Apple Original in my latest screener haul. Like all Apple products, it deserves a thorough review.

As far as I can tell, this is the only legal way to own a copy of “Coda” — and, even then, recipients of this are told to destroy it after “the awards season is over”. Not just a physical copy, either; as far as I can tell, the only way to watch “Coda” is by streaming it. The TV app has a big Oscars feature section right now, which I cannot find a way to link to, and it seems that every movie can be purchased except “Coda”.

It is not an isolated case. Movies and serial productions from streaming services generally do not have physical copies, which sucks for archival purposes and, also, if you just want to watch something without dealing with software updates and server problems. But Apple has an online store that sells movies. Surely it can find a way to sell this movie — the one where the first fifteen seconds of runtime is an “Apple Original Films” logo.

Update: Depending on where you are in the world, you may find that “Coda” is only available for purchase and cannot be streamed.

Confessions of a Digital Hoarder

Charlie Warzel, Galaxy Brain:

I know I’m not alone. In a paper published in 2019 in the journal World Psychiatry, titled “The ‘Online Brain’: How the Internet May be Changing Our Cognition,” the researchers suggest that “the Internet is becoming a ‘supernormal stimulus’ for transactive memory — making all other options for cognitive offloading (including books, friends, and community) become redundant, as they are outcompeted by the novel capabilities for external information storage and retrieval made possible by the Internet.”

That sure sounds bad. But in reality, it’s probably good and bad. The paper suggests that “reliance on online searching may impede memory retrieval by reducing the functional connectivity and synchronization of associated brain regions.” But it also notes that this process might also free up cognitive space in other parts of our brain. At one point, the paper’s authors posit that “increasing reliance on the Internet for information may cause individuals to ‘blur the lines’ between their own capabilities and their devices.” This is likely what I’m doing by saving information for later, and mistaking that filing away for a kind of uploading into my own memory.

How curious it was for me when this appeared in NetNewsWire at about the same time as Matt Sephton tweeted about a long-forgotten app. It is one I recognize, too — it captures screenshots as you use your Mac and makes them searchable, all locally. But I searched my Pinboard, which is where I offload these sorts of things, and cannot find it.

Update: The software Sephton was looking for is probably Savant.

The Big Tech Antitrust Movement Is Finally Showing Results

The European Council:

The Council and the Parliament today reached a provisional political agreement on the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which aims to make the digital sector fairer and more competitive. Final technical work will make it possible to finalise the text in the coming days.

Alex Kantrowitz, Big Technology:

For years, a chorus of critics has argued Big Tech is too powerful, unaccountable, and anti-competitive. And for years, it’s seemed like they were shouting into a pillow. Antitrust legislation meandered in Congress, the tech giants continued to squeeze their competitors, and they added trillions in market cap in the process.

But now, the Big Tech antitrust movement is actually making real progress. On Thursday, the EU adopted the Digital Markets Act, a landmark piece of legislation aimed at restoring the market competitiveness that the tech giants have hindered. One day earlier, Google said it would allow some Android app developers to take payments directly, avoiding its Play Store’s processing and fees. After a long period of stagnation, these moves are breakthroughs.

There will doubtless be teething problems with these changes and cases that will need to be clarified. But I am also optimistic about how this will play out over time if it is able to accomplish even a subset of its intended goals, and whether the “gatekeeper” companies — as the E.U. refers to them — will apply similar policies worldwide.

There are also well-founded concerns from those who worry about overregulation to those who say it does not go far enough. I am not applying some false “both sides” narrative here — I really think there are good arguments to be made about whether this act will strike the right balance. I still think it is strange that one of the most headline-making qualities of this act is messenger app interoperability, even though that market is thriving.

Oh, and before I forget, from Kantrowitz’s article:

[…] One day earlier, Google said it would allow some Android app developers to take payments directly, avoiding its Play Store’s processing and fees. […]

Spotify is still paying Google a commission on every sale. Neither party has said what that commission is, but Google’s policy in South Korea is to take four percentage points off the standard rate when using third-party billing, and I bet this would be a similar arrangement. This experiment does not “avoid” Play Store fees, but it does reduce them.

The Mac Studio and Studio Display for Creative Professionals

Peter Wiggins, FCP.co:

We sat down with Xander Soren, Director of Product Marketing, Pro Apps, Tom Boger, Vice President of Mac & iPad Product Marketing and Shelly Goldberg, Senior Director, Mac & iPad Product Design. 

Shortly after the announcement of the Mac Studio and Studio Display at the Peak Performance Apple event, we had the pleasure of talking to three Apple executives about the new machine and how the creative pro would benefit.

This is a good and wide-ranging interview that dances around a question I have been thinking about for a while now: what capabilities do high-performance products like these unlock for a creative professional? It is great to see how much faster they are at compiling applications or rendering video, but I wonder what new things people will attempt on machines like these which may have been too daunting before.

Here is a little example from my own work that is nowhere near as computationally demanding: I often receive vector drawings as Adobe Illustrator files, but I prefer working in Sketch. Sometimes, these drawings will have thousands of points, particularly if it is a vector object that is supposed to resemble a more analogue style. While Illustrator handles these files easily, it is one of the things that Sketch struggles with on my iMac, so I am disincentivized to use this style of illustration. If I had a faster Mac, I bet I would have an easier time manipulating these objects in Sketch, and would use this style more often.

I wonder what the equivalent of that is in terms the higher-end Mac Studio customer may grapple with. What style of 3D modelling will be enabled by these faster computers? What motion graphics will someone be encouraged to explore now that their computer does not hang every time they attempt an effect? That is the sort of thing I am curious about.

Also, I thought Boger’s description of the Studio Display was funny:

It’s the best display we’ve ever made for the Mac, it also makes it a great display for the rest of our Mac product line at an accessible price point.

Sorry to anyone who bought a Pro Display XDR.

Clearview Is Laundering Its Reputation in Ukraine

Thomas Brewster, Forbes:

[…] On Wednesday, deputy prime minister and head of the Digital Transformation Ministry in Ukraine, Mykhailo Fedorov, confirmed on his Telegram profile that surveillance technology was being used in this way, a matter of weeks after Clearview AI, the New York-based facial recognition provider, started offering its services to Ukraine for those same purposes. Fedorov didn’t say what brand of artificial intelligence was being used in this way, but his department later confirmed to Forbes that it was Clearview AI, which is providing its software for free. They’ll have a good chance of getting some matches: In an interview with Reuters earlier this month, Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That said the company had a store of 10 billion users’ faces scraped from social media, including 2 billion from Russian Facebook alternative Vkontakte. Fedorov wrote in a Telegram post that the ultimate aim was to “dispel the myth of a ‘special operation’ in which there are ‘no conscripts’ and ‘no one dies.’”

Tim Cushing, Techdirt:

Or maybe it’s just Clearview jumping on the bandwagon by supporting a country that already has the support of the most powerful governments in the world. Grabbing onto passing coattails and contacting journalists to get the word out about the company’s reverse-heel turn is savvy marketing. But it’s little more than that. The tech may prove useful (if the Ukraine government is even using it), but that shouldn’t be allowed to whitewash Clearview’s (completely earned) terrible reputation. Even if it’s useful, it’s only useful because the company was willing to do what no other company was: scrape millions of websites and sell access to the scraped data to anyone willing to pay for it.

It has been abundantly clear for a long time that accurate facial recognition can have its benefits, just as recording everyone’s browser history could make it easier to investigate crime. Even if this seems helpful, it is still an uneasy technology developed by ethically bankrupt company. It is hard for me to see this as much more than Clearview cynically using a war as a marketing opportunity given that it spread news of its participation weeks before anyone in the Ukrainian government confirmed it.

Print-on-Demand Services Are a Boon for Enterprising Exploiters of Political Division

Nasmul Ahasan, the San Francisco Chronicle:

In early February, Facebook removed two large pro-convoy groups after inquiries from the news site Grid, which had found that Bangladeshis were managing the groups. When a spinoff trucker convoy launched in Australia, it was also propped up by deceptive Facebook groups, including those run by Bangladeshi spammers, the news site Crikey reported.

The motives of these groups are not always easy to pin down. Some have diverted followers to digital donation sites organized by real protesters, others to “content mills” filled with pay-per-click ads.

But The Chronicle uncovered an extraordinary new set of players in the battle: Internet entrepreneurs in developing countries who take advantage of Western political division — and inflame it — with the sole aim of juicing sales of customized T-shirts, mugs, tumblers, ballcaps, tote bags, pillows and phone cases, with the profits shared by American companies.

I had wondered what benefits were being reaped by people elsewhere promoting groups like these. Now I know: the merch, stupid. Some of the protesters contributed thousands of dollars to these efforts, so maybe they would also buy an overpriced t-shirt and phone case.

Still, the Chronicle is likely exaggerating the influence of these groups. It says that one of the biggest had about 15,000 members, but the groups profiled by the Grid had memberships in the hundreds of thousands. It also says it did not know how many sales were made.

This article is an interesting look behind the scenes of these Facebook groups, but I do not think the takeaway is that some entrepreneurs in Bangladesh are manipulating the political process in Canada or doing anything particularly untoward. There are merch tents at all these demonstrations.

A Real-World Comparison of Photos From the iPhone 7 and iPhone 12

In March 2021, John Nack shot a series of photos on an iPhone 7 Plus and a similar series on an iPhone 12 Pro Max — the same comparison as Kyle Chayka wrote about earlier this week. It is pretty clear to me how much better the iPhone 12’s photos are compared to those from the iPhone 7. They are more colourful, especially in the warmer red and yellow tones — sorry to that person from the New Yorker article — and much sharper.

Despite their technical excellence, I also find myself appreciating the more muted images from the iPhone 7. I wonder if some people prefer an imperfect and perhaps nostalgic image. It may be one reason film photos are seen by some as superior to digital, or why vinyl is loved by many in a way CDs never have been. Or think about the difference between movies shown at 24 frames per second compared to those shown at 60. The digital or newer versions are all technically superior, but they can sometimes feel cold or less satisfying.

I do not think Apple should aim to replicate analogue imperfections, nor do I think the company should slow progress on its cameras. It is one of the main reasons I look forward to buying a new iPhone every few years. In these examples, I prefer the photos from the 12 Pro, but I find myself drawn in by the slightly hazy quality of those from the iPhone 7.

(Via John Gruber.)