Search Results for: ostensibly

Howard Oakley:

Software engineers are hopeless optimists when they design and code only for success. There’s much more to handling errors than displaying a couple of phrases of in-house jargon and fobbing the user off with a magic number. It’s high time that designing error-handling to help the user became a central tenet of macOS.

My only quibble with Oakley’s conclusion here is that it should not be limited to MacOS; I expect better diagnostics across all of Apple’s operating systems. Otherwise, this is spot on.

It is bananas that the best error messages users will encounter are those with an inscrutable code — “the best” because it is at least something which can begin a web search for answers. But a Mac is not a microwave; it has a very large display and can display more information than an error code of a few characters. Worse still are errors which have no information — Oakley’s example is a MacOS installer with the error “This copy of the Install macOS Big Sur.app application is damaged, and can’t be used to install macOS.” has only an “OK” button, as though that is an acceptable response1 — or silent failure where no message is displayed to the user at all.

There is no way this is the best that can be done, nor is it what we should expect out of our ostensibly modern families of operating systems.


  1. Since this is a MacOS installer, a better error message would have an option to fix the application, or at least re-download it in full. ↥︎

In his Sunday “Media Equation” column in the New York Times, Ben Smith said he obtained an internal document created for new TikTok employees:

The document, headed “TikTok Algo 101,” was produced by TikTok’s engineering team in Beijing. A company spokeswoman, Hilary McQuaide, confirmed its authenticity, and said it was written to explain to nontechnical employees how the algorithm works. The document offers a new level of detail about the dominant video app, providing a revealing glimpse both of the app’s mathematical core and insight into the company’s understanding of human nature — our tendencies toward boredom, our sensitivity to cultural cues — that help explain why it’s so hard to put down. The document also lifts the curtain on the company’s seamless connection to its Chinese parent company, ByteDance, at a time when the U.S. Department of Commerce is preparing a report on whether TikTok poses a security risk to the United States.

What is interesting to me is the lengths the Times went to so that it could obscure this relatively mild piece of internal documentation. Unlike many other artifacts obtained by the Times, a copy was not linked within the article, and even embedded diagrams were reproduced instead of the originals being shown.

Whether those were precautions borne of a secrecy promise, or perhaps because the original documents had legibility problems, I feel like Smith buried the lede. After wading through an overwrought exploration of the file’s contents, Smith reports on the many lingering connections the ostensibly independent TikTok has with its predecessor app Douyin:

TikTok’s development process, the document says, is closely intertwined with the process of Douyin’s. The document at one point refers TikTok employees to the “Launch Process for Douyin Recommendation Strategy,” and links to an internal company document that it says is the “same document for TikTok and Douyin.”

It turns out the Douyin version of that shared internal document has been circulating publicly for months.

Protocol’s Zeyi Yang, writing in the Source Code newsletter:

In fact, another closely related app uses the same secret sauce. In January, a document titled “Guide to a Certain Video APP’s Recommendation (Algorithm)” was released on several Chinese platforms. While it intentionally obscured which app it’s referencing, there are plenty of hints that it’s about Douyin, TikTok’s Chinese version.

For one, the Chinese document describes how it makes recommendations in the exact same formula and language (yes, word for word) as the document leaked to the Times. They also used the same challenge to the algorithm as a case study.

And in a Q&A entry about competitors, the document mentioned three other major Chinese apps — Toutiao, Kuaishou and Weibo — that rely on recommendation algorithms, but not Douyin, the app that does it the best.

The link above is now dead, but you can find plenty of copies on Chinese social networks — one that was uploaded to CSDN, for instance. It is in Chinese, but it appears to be exactly the same file.

Sheera Frenkel and Davey Alba, New York Times:

With 340 million people using Facebook’s various social media platforms, India is the company’s largest market. And Facebook’s problems on the subcontinent present an amplified version of the issues it has faced throughout the world, made worse by a lack of resources and a lack of expertise in India’s 22 officially recognized languages.

[…]

Of India’s 22 officially recognized languages, Facebook said it has trained its A.I. systems on five. (It said it had human reviewers for some others.) But in Hindi and Bengali, it still did not have enough data to adequately police the content, and much of the content targeting Muslims “is never flagged or actioned,” the Facebook report said.

Casey Newton, Platformer:

Facebook likely spends more on integrity efforts than any of its peers, though it is also the largest of the social networks. Sissons told me that ideally, the company’s community standards and AI content moderation capabilities would be translated into every country where Facebook is operating. But even the United Nations supports only six official languages; Facebook has native speakers moderating posts in more than 70.

Maybe I am oversimplifying this, but perhaps some things are obviously simple: it is probably not possible to fairly and accurately moderate discussions between billions of people speaking hundreds of languages.

If Facebook were a utility, this would not be a problem — but it is not, nor should it be. Facebook is a business. Its features amplify our worst instincts which, in turn, boosts engagement with the company’s platforms and helps attract advertisers. Facebook’s representatives like to say that this is not true because advertisers and shareholders could not possibly be attracted to a company with a poor record, but in the years since Facebook was tied to genocide the company’s value has doubled.

Facebook is too large. It has too much control over platforms relied upon by too many people in too many languages and regions. That is in part because its platforms are very good at facilitating communication, but it is also because the company has acquired potential rivals and encouraged use by violating the net neutrality principles the company ostensibly supports. There are apps competing for different parts of Facebook’s business in different parts of the world, but Facebook’s products remain the glue holding together disparate factions. I do not think crowning Facebook by treating it like a utility, as some have suggested, is a wise decision, as the objectives of a private company are inherently different to those of a public entity. It makes more sense to break this giant into smaller pieces, both by mandating interoperability and exploring options to separate its self-competing products.

Maybe individual companies should not be this big.

As part of its second annual Technology Report, Bain & Company published a study yesterday that reframes large acquisitions by tech companies — anything over $300 million — as inconsequential or even beneficial for competition. In an environment of increasing wariness of massive conglomerates, this raised my eyebrows, especially since it was being promoted by the CEO of a tech company lobbying organization.

It is not my place to assess the economics or business acumen of this study. I went to art school, which is sort of an anti-education in those kinds of fields. Usually, I would stay out of this sort of commentary since my reaction probably means that I am missing something non-obvious. But there are several things in this study that, so far as I can tell, do not require an economics degree to see that the conclusions drawn do not match the evidence presented.

The first case study is Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods in 2017. Bain produced three graphics. One shows that Whole Foods’ “pricing premium” over standard grocery store chains fell in the two years after Amazon bought the company. That is great, except Bain draws the conclusion that this “[made] healthy, fresh food more affordable for consumers”. That is an absurd summary. Last I checked, regular grocery stores had fresh, healthy food too, and at lower prices than the 13% premium Whole Foods charges, according to Bain’s own chart.

The second and third charts show that there was a modest increase in online grocery purchases between 2015 and 2019, followed by an explosion of the same in 2020. A similar trajectory is shown for delivery, in a graphic comparing 2016 to 2020 and carrying the headline “acquisition intensified pressure to adopt delivery”.

I am wondering if you, reader, can think of anything else beginning in 2020 that may have encouraged many more people to shop for groceries online and have them delivered. Anything at all?

Bain:

Amazon’s 2013 expansion into grocery delivery with Amazon Fresh added pressure on US grocery retailers to begin offering online ordering and delivery services, and that pressure only intensified after Amazon acquired Whole Foods. Now, every major US grocery retailer offers online ordering and delivery services, either managed in-house or via partnerships. This was true even before the Covid-19 pandemic.

I buy the basic thrust of this argument. Amazon is a classic conglomerate, but many of its innovations have been in logistics. It is unsurprising that the biggest online retailer in the U.S. would be able to extend those logistics capabilities to a grocery store, and it is arguably beneficial for consumers, particularly persons with disabilities.

But there are reasons beyond stagnation why supermarkets in the U.S. have been reluctant to embrace delivery. Deliery is dependent on delivery drivers and, without the artificially low pay structure of gig workers, it is prohibitively expensive because of its inherent inefficiencies. But because the gig economy is now a reality, grocery delivery has become a practical option, initiated — if anything — by Instacart, which launched in 2013, months before Amazon’s effort.

The benefits Bain describes can also be attributed to scale. Amazon also offers perks like free shipping in its online store, which small businesses struggle to compete against. Lower prices and free shipping are the kinds of consumer benefit derived from massive scale, but they must be weighed against the benefits of retailer choice and local businesses.

I am getting into the weeds here and away from the point I think we ought to focus on: Bain asserts that Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods was a key reason we now have widespread grocery delivery. It seems far more likely to me that grocery delivery was yet another industry where startups could underpay gig workers to do tasks that were previously economically unviable, and Amazon was well-positioned to hop on that ride. Instacart was in an even better place when Amazon bought Whole Foods, since grocery stores saw it as a lesser evil.

Another case study in the Bain report looks at the acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook. The authors point to the effect this acquisition ostensibly had on SMS prices in the U.S., producing a chart that showed — in two-year increments — the average cost of an SMS.

I have reproduced that sole data series here and I would like you to point to the spot on this line of average SMS prices where WhatsApp was acquired:

Illustration based on Bain & Company chart.
Illustration based on Bain & Company chart

Is it not obvious?

Here is the full chart they presented:

Source: Bain & Company “Regulate with Care: The Case for Big Tech M&A” report.
Source: Bain and Company Regulate with Care: The Case for Big Tech M and A report

This chart shows that the biggest drop in SMS costs came before app-based messaging went mainstream, even before iMessage launched in 2011. The price of voice calls also catered around the same time. 2010 was about when carriers realized that charging people for texts was unnecessary since data was the new gravy train.

The story presented in Bain’s series of charts is really the story of switching from a protocol to several platforms. SMS, for all its faults, is a platform-agnostic messaging protocol that requires nothing extra. Now, we have a bunch of messaging applications that compete, but also silo our communications. My conversations span seven different messaging apps, and it is a good thing I am not an Android user or I would be struggling. Is it inherently good that we have many different messaging clients now? I appreciate the many features these platforms provide, but it seems to have come at the expense of interconnectedness. Imagine if we had many different telephone protocols that were platform-specific and incompatible with each other.

One more example from this Bain report is Google’s acquisition of YouTube. Here’s how the authors explain that:

In video streaming, YouTube helped fuel the proliferation of “over the top” (OTT) video providers such as Hulu, Sling, and Disney+. Now, YouTube competes for advertising dollars both with other OTT providers and traditional television companies.

The reason people were not consuming streaming video as much in 2006 — or 2001, when Blockbuster and Enron launched their own streaming service — is not because Google did not own YouTube at that time. Widespread broadband connections are a far more likely reason people are consuming more streaming video now.

More to the point, there simply is not another YouTube. I ran a poll last week — which, with only 43 respondents, is not some kind of robust study — in which I asked Twitter followers how many pre-roll ads YouTube could run before it sees a decline in viewership. 65% thought three pre-rolls was the cap, but I think it could be pushed way higher. If there were suddenly five or six pre-roll ads before the first video you watched that day, and then three or four on subsequent videos, do you really think people would stop watching? Where would they go?

The most robust user-generated video competitor, according to Bain’s charts, is Twitch. The Amazon-owned site is not really a YouTube competitor aside from in specific verticals and, as Ryan said in response to my poll, it is also running several ads before streams. These platforms are both terrible for users, and they know they can be increasingly horrible because they have no replacement.

I can continue to nitpick, but near the end, the study veers from mixing up cause and effect to being almost deceptive (“hyperscalers” is what Bain calls Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft):

The common narrative is hyperscalers are acquiring disruptive competitors. But their M&A activity is only a small piece of the overall landscape, representing just 5% of total tech start-up exits last year (see Figure 5).

Switching from the value of acquisitions — which is mostly what the preceding paragraphs are all about — to their quantity masks their impact. Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp or Apple’s purchase of Beats is not equal to a small tech company merging with another small tech company. That is an obviously unfair comparison.

The impression I get from this study is that an acquisition by a big company of something else can be a wider indication of the value of that market, hopefully creating competition in that space. But that is not what much of this data shows. There are so many examples here of “hyperscalers” hopping onto an existing market trend that it is hard to see that case being made. The closest the authors get is with Instacart’s boom following Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods — but “Instacart” appears nowhere in this study.

It is a frustrating article where I am sure I am missing a great deal. I wish I could read the authors’ references or see their analysis in more detail. But all we get is this lightweight summary that does not prove its case.

Today, I rushed to finish Alec MacGillis’ Fulfillment. Partly, that is because it is a riveting series of vignettes ostensibly about the distorting effects of Amazon in America; partly, that is because the library needs this copy back to lend to someone else.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Do your best to set aside any thoughts you may have about antitrust and the kinds of big theoretical questions that a massive company like Amazon engenders. Try to read these stories as presented: many, many people who have found their lives turned upside down by the extraordinary influence of Amazon working in concert with lawmakers at all levels, for the economic advancement of the few. It is devastating.

I bet it is available at your local bookstore or library. But, if you cannot find it there and you enjoy living a life rich in irony, it is also available on Amazon.

This is one of those stories that gets into some difficult territory, as far as my genre of writing goes. These are not light topics.

JD Flynn and Ed Condon, the Pillar:

Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill, former general secretary of the U.S. bishops’ conference, announced his resignation Tuesday, after The Pillar found evidence the priest engaged in serial sexual misconduct, while he held a critical oversight role in the Catholic Church’s response to the recent spate of sexual abuse and misconduct scandals.

[…]

According to commercially available records of app signal data obtained by The Pillar, a mobile device correlated to Burrill emitted app data signals from the location-based hookup app Grindr on a near-daily basis during parts of 2018, 2019, and 2020 — at both his USCCB office and his USCCB-owned residence, as well as during USCCB meetings and events in other cities.

I do not wish to devalue any reader’s faith; if you are Catholic, please know that I am not criticizing you specifically or your beliefs.

The Catholic Church has a history of opposing LGBTQ rights and treating queer people with a unique level of hatred — this report says that the use of Grindr and similar apps “present[s] challenges to the Church’s child protection efforts”, invoking the dehumanizing myth tying gay men to pedophilic behaviour, an association frequently made by the Catholic Church.1 I find it difficult to link to this story because of statements like these, and it offends me how this priest was outed.

But I also think it is important to give you, reader, the full context of what is disclosed, and what is not. For example, I understand that Catholic priests have an obligation to be celibate and, theoretically, the Pillar would investigate any clergy it believed was stepping out of line. But this specifically involves one priest and Grindr, and leaves a lot of questions unanswered. For a start, how did the Pillar know? Did it get tipped off about Burrill’s activities so it would know where to look, or did it receive data dumps related to the phones of significant American clergy? And what about other dating apps, like Tinder or Bumble? Surely, there must be priests in America using one of those apps to engage in opposite-sex relationships; why not an exposé on one of them? This report does not give any indication about how it began investigating. I find that odd, to say the least.

The reason I am linking to this is because of that data sharing angle. As reported by Shoshana Wodinsky at Gizmodo, Grindr has repeatedly insisted on the anonymity of its data collection and ad tech ties:

When asked about the Burrill case, a Grindr spokesperson told Gizmodo that it “[does] not believe Grindr is the source of the data behind the blog’s unethical, homophobic witch hunt.”

[…]

Obviously, only Grindr knows if Grindr is telling the truth. But these sorts of adtech middlemen the platform’s relying on have a years-long track record of lying through their teeth if it means it can squeeze platforms and publishers for a few more cents per user. Grindr, meanwhile, has a years-long track record of blithely accepting these lies, even when they mean multiple lawsuits from regulators and slews of irate users.

Wodinsky points to a piece at the Catholic News Agency — which both Pillar writers used to work for — claiming that an anonymous party had “access to technology capable of identifying clergy […] found to be using [dating apps] to violate their clerical vows”. It will come as no surprise to you that I find it revolting that someone can expose this behaviour through advertising data. It is a wailing klaxon for regulation and reform.

But, also, is it ethical for a news organization to acquire data like this for the purpose of publicly outing someone or sharing their private activities? In a 2018 story, the New York Times showed how it was possible to identify people using similar data. But the newsworthiness of that story was not in individuals’ habits and activities, it was about how easy it is to misuse advertising and tracking data. And where is the line on this? Are journalists and publications going to begin mining the surveillance of ad tech companies in search of news stories? I would be equally disturbed if this were instead a report that exposed the infidelity of a “family values”-type lawmaker. I think the Pillar exposed a worrisome capability with this report, and also initiated a rapid ethical slide.

Thank you for making it through this post. As compensation, please enjoy some impressive finger athletics.


  1. The authors clarify that they are ostensibly concerned about the relative ease with which minors are able to use dating and hookup apps. That is a fair criticism. But this digression cannot be separated from this harmful belief, nor from the Church’s history of sexual abuse of minors. That abuse was not caustic because the clergy involved were engaged in same-sex relations, it was because they were powerful adults molesting children. ↥︎

Zoë Schiffer, the Verge:

A week after The Verge published the García Martínez letter, a group of Muslim employees at Apple penned a note calling for the company to release a statement in support of Palestine. When Tim Cook didn’t respond, the letter was leaked to The Verge.

It is interesting to me that these letters, and another about Apple’s back-to-office plan, were leaked specifically to the Verge. They were not sent to a labour reporter at the more aggressive Vice, or to a business publication like Bloomberg. Curious.

The two letters, and their leaks, are signs of a slow cultural shift at Apple. Employees, once tight-lipped about internal problems, are now joining a wave of public dissent that’s roiling Silicon Valley. Employees say this is partly because Apple’s typical avenues for reporting don’t work for big cultural issues. They also note the company rolled out Slack in 2019, allowing workers to find and organize with one another.

[…]

Public organizing, particularly on social media, has been enormously successful in Silicon Valley, allowing workers to wrestle power away from management. At Google, it’s led the company to end forced arbitration for all full-time employees. At Amazon, it’s spawned massive unionizing campaigns. Now, it seems to be Apple’s turn. “Suddenly at Apple, as everywhere else, managers can only stand back and watch as workers reshape the bounds of what will be permitted at work,” wrote Casey Newton, founder and editor of Platformer.

The Google and Amazon examples Schiffer cites were both truly organized in public and on social media. But all three Apple letters — so far — are ostensibly for internal audiences only, though that façade is crumbling.

I have to wonder if this recent spate of letters has actually made a difference. The one asking for a reconsideration of hiring policies cost Antonio García Martínez a job, but it is unclear whether there have been any changes to recruiting or interviewing. Apple and its leadership did not post any statements in defense of Palestine, either.

While it is too soon to know whether there will be any changes to Apple’s plan to bring employees back to the office for 60% or more of a workweek, I do not imagine this will make a dent. I know that some people will find this a bummer — the past year has proved that many people can do many jobs without being anywhere near an office. But many people were hired at Apple with the understanding that they would be working at the company’s buildings. This is not a case of Apple reducing the amount of time working from home; it is an increase from being required to be in the office full-time. This pandemic has been difficult and traumatic, but it is not a permanent state. I do not think it is realistic to expect everything to go back to the way it was before this pandemic, but it is equally unlikely that our generally rich and privileged lives will be unrecognizable because of it.

I hope this does not come across as indifferent. Many people have lost family and friends to this pandemic, and countless more have been impacted in ways little and large — including me.

Steven Aquino says that Apple has long been accommodating for people with disabilities. I have also heard several stories of Apple being surprisingly flexible for people who cannot work in Cupertino. That is clearly not the case for all people who wish to work remotely, but there are satellite Apple offices in dozens of cities that you would not immediately think of. Employees are, however, working in offices.

Apple’s arrangement is limiting, as are most jobs. There are plenty of companies that I would love to work for that would require me to relocate, and that is frustrating but fine. There are also many remote positions I could consider at other companies if I were looking for another job and wanted to work from home. If these requirements mean that Apple begins to bleed too much talent to more remote-friendly companies, it will no doubt adjust its policies. For now, so long as it is safe, this is entirely what I expected — and, I think, what most people should have anticipated.

For most new Apple hardware, I look forward to written reviews, but for these new M1 iMacs, I was especially excited for videos. These anodized aluminum colours are going to look different depending on lighting and motion, so they will look best in person, and video gets closest to that experience.

Apple shipped one of each colour iMac to Justine Ezarik, and I think she shows off the depth of colour coordination really well. Marques Brownlee received a blue review unit, and pointed out that the white bezel keeps it looking friendly and is less distracting in actual use.

I really liked Tyler Stalman’s review as well, where he takes the iMac through some of his typical photo and video editing processes. Like all M1 Macs, it seems almost impossibly capable for being an ostensibly entry level Mac.

It is still hard to believe that you can buy Macs today that range from $699 to over $2,600 — if you max out an iMac — and they all feature the exact same processor with maybe one GPU core missing. And, oh, you can buy an iPad with the same SoC too. This radically simplifies the computer buying experience to one based almost entirely on form factor. There is virtually no performance compromise you need to make in choosing between a desktop and a laptop — not like the Intel era.

So, now that the consumer side of the Mac product line has been transitioned to Apple’s own processors, it will soon be time to see what is in store for its more professionally-oriented computers. Exciting times.

Although App Tracking Transparency only shipped this week as part of iOS 14.5, Apple announced it last year, and it got Facebook all riled up. The company has aggressively campaigned against the feature, arguing that it will harm small businesses because, as Facebook’s Dan Levy wrote, precisely targeted ads bring businesses’ costs down:

This affects not just app developers, but also small businesses that rely on personalized ads to grow. Here’s why. Small businesses have small budgets. For these small budgets to work, they have to be targeted at the customers that matter to small businesses. It doesn’t do a local wedding planner any good to reach people who aren’t planning a wedding. Likewise, it doesn’t do a small ecommerce outfit selling customized dog leashes any good to reach cat owners. Put simply, by dramatically limiting the effectiveness of personalized advertising, Apple’s policy will make it much harder for small businesses to reach their target audience, which will limit their growth and their ability to compete with big companies.

This line of reasoning was thoroughly debunked by Facebook’s ex-employees and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Andrés Arrieta who pointed out that behaviourally-targeted ads are often more expensive than more weakly-targeted versions because of the many intermediaries taking their cut. These types of ads produce mixed results for advertisers, have little benefit for publishers, are not very well targeted, and require us to sacrifice our privacy with few ways of opting out.

Then, in a Clubhouse chat with Josh Constine last month, Mark Zuckerberg said that Facebook “may even be in a stronger position” after the introduction of App Tracking Transparency because of Facebook’s uniquely large amount of user data. But that was contradicted somewhat in today’s quarterly earnings report in a comment from CFO David Wehner (emphasis mine):

We expect second quarter 2021 year-over-year total revenue growth to remain stable or modestly accelerate relative to the growth rate in the first quarter of 2021 as we lap slower growth related to the pandemic during the second quarter of 2020. In the third and fourth quarters of 2021, we expect year-over-year total revenue growth rates to significantly decelerate sequentially as we lap periods of increasingly strong growth. We continue to expect increased ad targeting headwinds in 2021 from regulatory and platform changes, notably the recently-launched iOS 14.5 update, which we expect to begin having an impact in the second quarter. This is factored into our outlook.

On the call, Wehner said that the impact would be “manageable” due to the company’s increased investments in e-commerce. How much Facebook’s own revenue will be impacted will, as the company says, be seen later this year. This quarter, however, there are no such worries for Facebook.

Barbara Ortutay, Associated Press:

The company said it earned $9.5 billion, or $3.30 per share, in the January-March period. That’s up 94% from $4.9 billion, or $1.71 per share, a year earlier.

Revenue grew 48% to $26.17 billion from $17.44 billion.

But for the small businesses Facebook ostensibly cares about, things got more expensive:

The average price of ads on Facebook grew 30% from a year earlier, while the number of ads increased by 12%.

Alex Heath of the Information on Twitter:

Takeaway from Facebook earnings:

  • Its pricing power for ads is increasing dramatically as Apple makes cheap ads less efficient

  • The business is becoming more efficient as it grows (43% operating margin!) […]

As is often the case for stories about privacy changes — whether regulatory or at a platform level — much of the coverage about App Tracking Transparency has been centred around its potential effects on the giants of the industry: Amazon, Facebook, and Google. But this may actually have a greater impact on smaller ad tech companies and data brokers. That is fine; I have repeatedly highlighted the surreptitious danger of these companies that are not household names. But Facebook and Google can adapt and avoid major hits to their businesses because they are massive — and they may, as Zuckerberg said, do even better. They are certainly charging more for ads.

That is not to say that we should give up and accept that these businesses destroy our privacy to enrich themselves and their shareholders. If we threw in the towel every time we realized that lawmaking was difficult or that laws would be broken sometimes, we wouldn’t have any laws.

You may have noticed my pivot from Apple’s platform rules to a more regulated approach. That is because I maintain that a legal solution is the only correct one. While I am glad this new control exists in iOS, privacy is not something people should buy. And, pursuant to Facebook’s earnings and forecast, there should not be a benefit from the increased scarcity of data due to better privacy controls.

Apple:

The breakthrough M1 chip takes the industry-leading performance of iPad Pro to an entirely new level. The 8-core CPU design features the world’s fastest CPU cores in low-power silicon — delivering up to 50 percent faster CPU performance than A12Z Bionic. The 8-core GPU is in a class of its own, delivering up to 40 percent faster GPU performance. This combination of CPU and graphics performance on iPad Pro widens its lead as the fastest device of its kind. Powerful custom technologies, including a next-generation 16-core Apple Neural Engine, an advanced image signal processor (ISP), a unified, high-bandwidth memory architecture with up to 16GB of memory, 2x faster storage, and up to 2TB capacity, make iPad Pro more capable than ever. The industry-leading power efficiency of M1 enables all of that amazing performance along with all-day battery life in the thin and light design of iPad Pro.1 Because M1 shares the same fundamental architecture of A-series chips, iPadOS is already optimized to take full advantage of the powerful technologies in M1 to easily handle everything from simple navigation to the most demanding workflows.

An iPad uses what is ostensibly the same processor as half of Apple’s Mac lineup. Impressive. This is the first time Apple has openly acknowledged the iPad’s memory instead of treating it as secret sauce and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is offered in similar configurations as its Mac cousins. Unlike a Mac, you cannot customize the RAM independent of its storage; if you do not want a terabyte of disk space, you will get 8 GB of RAM.

There is a lot to love about these new iPad models, and I am excited to see the display in the 12.9-inch model, even though it increases the price considerably. But this is the part of covering new iPad hardware where I am legally obligated to express that my frustrations remain in its software. I am excited for what WWDC may bring on that front because, much as I want one of these new iPad Pro models, nearly all of the things I wish to change about my base-model years-old iPad are in its operating system.

Let’s start with what we can see, shall we? Not since the iMac G3 of the late 1990s has Apple used such vibrant colours on any Mac, and they look beautiful. The product photography makes the green one look like the original “Bondi Blue” iMac. If I were buying one of these iMacs, that’s the one I’d have. I wish the MacBook Air came in these same colour choices.

The new model has a slimmed-down bezel in white, which is an odd choice. I am curious about what that will look like in person, though I have not been a fan of any of the devices I have used with white bezels. There isn’t a logo anywhere on the front, but it still has a chin because that’s where the computer is.

That chin features a pastel version of the iMac’s colour that is matched in the stand; around the sides and back, it is a richer and more vibrant hue. Don’t worry — there is still a silver model available if you are boring.

I am so happy to see colourful computers again — can you tell?

It is around the back of this iMac where things take a bit of a dive. For a start, it has just two USB 4/Thunderbolt ports; on the higher-end models, there are an extra two USB 3 ports. But that and a headphone jack is all the I/O that you get. That means no USB-A ports, of course, but also not SD card reader, which I use every few days on my own iMac. At least all currently-sold iPhones ship with Lightning cables that have a USB-C connector.

This iMac also has a curious new port around back for power and connectivity. It supports WiFi, of course, but if you want to use a wired connection, the higher-end models include a power brick with a gigabit ethernet port. That means the power supply is no longer built in, which creates some floor clutter, and — most curiously — this connects to the iMac via a single braided cable that attaches magnetically. So all current Apple notebooks have cables that are firmly seated and can cause the computer to go flying if they are tripped over, but one desktop model has a magnetic cable.

Apple is pitching this 24-inch iMac as a replacement for the 21.5-inch model; it has discontinued all but the lowest-end 21.5-inch Intel models, but it has retained the 27-inch models for now. This sets up the possibility for a greater differentiation between Apple’s more consumer-oriented products — the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, Mac Mini, and this iMac — and its higher-end products. This iMac uses ostensibly the same chip as its other own-silicon Mac models — and the new iPad Pro — and is limited to the same storage and memory options. The M1 products that have been released so far have proved to be extraordinarily powerful, but there are plenty of use cases that would benefit from more RAM and more power. That is what we can expect from the big iMac, and the 15-inch and higher-end 13-inch MacBook Pro models.

Jim Prosser of Edelman:

As I see it, there are three distinct structural shifts happening that both explain and give merit to a shift in emphasis toward businesses using their direct channels instead of relying on media coverage. Collectively, they have some profound implications for companies, communicators, and journalists.

[…]

Put simply, Americans on the whole trust business as an institution more than the press as an institution. That’s not conjecture. It’s backed by data.

[…]

There are far more stories businesses want to tell than there are reporters to tell them. How do we know that? Let’s look at U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In 2000, there were about two people working in public relations for every one working reporter in America. By 2019, that spread more than doubled to over five, driven by both an increase in PR jobs and a decrease in reporter jobs. By 2029, BLS projects the spread will keep expanding to over six.

I found this post illuminating and alarming. A collective trust in business marketing — or “storytelling”, as Prosser puts it — over good journalism means that more credence is given to media that has an inherent conflict of interest over that which, ostensibly, does not.

A common retort to this is that media outlets have, for years, degraded their own trust. CNN spends hours a day broadcasting talking head shouting matches; entire books have been dedicated to the inadequacies of the New York Times; Fox News is Fox News. This is not a U.S.-exclusive phenomenon: trust in the media, scientists, and academics has fallen in Canada, too.

But this trust gap is almost inherently unfair. When companies screw up, they barely flinch. Consider that, as of last year, 71% of Americans surveyed have a favourable opinion of Facebook. This is after years of behaviour that should have destroyed its reputation.

Media, on the other hand, operates within far tighter margins of trust. Brooke Gladstone, writing for the New York Times in 2015:

Americans say they want accuracy and impartiality, but the polls suggest that, actually, most of us are seeking affirmation. Americans want the news to be patriotic, which explains the big drop in 2004 when stories abounded about Abu Ghraib, the 9/11 commission’s slam on the government’s handling of terrorism, and the Senate Intelligence Committee finding that the White House “overstated” the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Plus, it was an election year. Trust in news media always dips in election years.

We tend to trust media that reflects our own views, and inherently distrust outlets that do not. Companies are perceived to be more neutral; the view that they are only interested in the bottom line is both cynical and perceived as more trustworthy than journalism. I think this is false, but it is what surveys suggest. Prosser makes several suggestions in this article about how media can improve reader trust — many of which have been made before — but I do not think they will be effective. For example, here’s one idea:

While the means of news distribution have changed starkly over the previous decade, news presentation online remains largely the same: text with occasional links and photos, sometimes video, presented in a format that basically tracks the print experience. There’s a meaningful opportunity here to look at means of presenting stories that reinforce trust: presenting primary source documents in line instead of just writing in reference to them, detailing how a piece was sourced in ways people understand […]

“Present primary sources” sounds like a slam-dunk, right? If a publication has documentation of something and shows it, the story should speak for itself. But this has mixed results. In 2004, records supposedly denigrating George W. Bush’s military service were shown to be created in Microsoft Word because those documents were available. On the other hand, even after a full summary was released by the White House of a call between then-U.S. president Donald Trump and Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, less than half of Republicans believed news reports about the substance of the call. I am sure you can find plenty of similar examples from different political parties and orientations; these are my own biases.

One positive note that I found while researching for this: Canadians are more trusting of local media, as are Americans (PDF).

Ben Gilbert, Insider:

“Hey everyone!! This is Yola from Oak4,” an account tied to an employee named Yola said last week. “I just joined a program where I am able to answer any questions, comments or concerns you may have about Amazon. I can’t wait to share what my experience working here has been like for me.”

The account, like several others reviewed by Insider, was started in March 2021. Rather than posting, the accounts focus on responding to people tweeting about the company.

Back in 2018, Amazon admitted to paying a small army of employees to tweet positive things about the company.

Not coincidentally, warehouse workers in Alabama finished voting yesterday on whether they should unionize; the result is expected in the coming days. But it is unclear which, if any, of these accounts are part of an Amazon astroturfing campaign, and which are fraudulent.

Here’s the BBC:

Many of the accounts involved used the handle @AmazonFC followed by a first name.

Amazon has previously used this handle for its so-called Amazon Ambassadors – real employees who are paid by the firm to promote and defend it on Twitter.

[…]

Several of the high-profile accounts have been suspended by Twitter. It told the BBC that Amazon Ambassadors are subject to Twitter’s rules on spam and platform manipulation.

Accounts which impersonate or falsely claim to be affiliated with a company, can be temporarily suspended or removed.

In 2019, Amazon reused some of these Twitter accounts under new names; this time, a bunch of new accounts surfaced with profile pictures cribbed from AI face generators. One of the more notable new accounts was “Darla’s”, as Matt Novak of Gizmodo explains:

Just take a look at the ears and the way the hair falls if you need any evidence that the photo of “Darla” is computer generated.

But photos aside, is Darla possibly real in other ways? Frankly, it’s really hard to tell. Some of the tweets almost seem purposely obtuse in the way that a troll might tweet.

“Amazon is NOT union busting, I can not stress that enough! Amazon is just trying to prevent employees from fraternizing or organizing outside of company-approved channels,” Darla tweeted over the weekend.

If that seems a little too perfect, that’s probably because it is. Aric Toler of Bellingcat spotted that the account was associated with a Gmail address instead of an Amazon one. That was the case for many of these new accounts, as Emanuel Maiberg of Vice says:

@AmazonFCDarla and @AmazonFCLulu are just two of the accounts Twitter suspended yesterday. Another used a photo of a guy from Dude Perfect, the YouTube trickshot guys; it was quickly suspended. Other ambassador accounts that appear to be endorsed and operated by Amazon, are still online, and posting only slightly less deranged content about how much they love working at Amazon. The accounts belonging to Amazon were registered with @amazon.com emails. The accounts we noticed had seemingly AI-generated faces were registered with other emails, or required an email before continuing the account verification process. @AmazonFCDarla and other seemingly fake Amazon ambassador accounts had open direct messages. The official Amazon ambassador accounts did not.

It’s kind of funny that Amazon thought these “ambassador” accounts — there are still some real ones — were a great PR move in the first place. It uses a predictable format and doesn’t control the Twitter namespace, so it is trivial for others to create parody accounts that highlight many of the reasons workers are unionizing. But I am not surprised many people fell for these tweets. Amazon’s PR strategy has been so hostile lately that a member of its security team filed a report speculating that the @AmazonNews account may have been accessed by an unauthorized user.

Regardless, the collapse of context on Twitter makes it easy to create the impression of legitimacy with little work. It sort of feels like screaming into the void to encourage extra vigilance on Twitter, but I think we can all remind ourselves and each other to be more careful about reacting strongly to tweets from new and unfamiliar sources.

It has been two and a half years since Bloomberg Businessweek published the now-legendary story of how servers made by Supermicro were compromised by Chinese intelligence at the time of manufacture — servers that ended up in data centres for “a major bank, government contractors”, Apple, and a company acquired by Amazon that counted among its clients the U.S. Department of Defense. Contemporary statements from the named affected companies were unequivocal: either the reporters were completely wrong, or these statements were lies that would carry severe penalties should evidence be found.

In the ensuing years, Jordan Robertson and Michael Riley, the two reporters on the story, have mostly stayed quiet despite frantic calls from security professionals for clarity. Its truthfulness has become something of an obsession for many, including me. On the first anniversary of its publication, I lamented the lack of followup: “either [it is] the greatest information security scoop of the decade or the biggest reporting fuck-up of its type”.

Nearly a year and a half has passed since I wrote that, and it has seemed like it would remain a bizarre stain on Bloomberg Businessweek’s credibility. And then, today, came the followup.

Jordan Robertson and Michael Riley, Bloomberg:

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Defense found thousands of its computer servers sending military network data to China — the result of code hidden in chips that handled the machines’ startup process.

In 2014, Intel Corp. discovered that an elite Chinese hacking group breached its network through a single server that downloaded malware from a supplier’s update site.

And in 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation warned multiple companies that Chinese operatives had concealed an extra chip loaded with backdoor code in one manufacturer’s servers.

Each of these distinct attacks had two things in common: China and Super Micro Computer Inc., a computer hardware maker in San Jose, California. They shared one other trait; U.S. spymasters discovered the manipulations but kept them largely secret as they tried to counter each one and learn more about China’s capabilities.

When I woke up this morning and saw Techmeme’s rewritten headline, “Sources: US investigators say hardware and firmware of Supermicro servers were tampered, with an extra chip loaded with a backdoor to send data to China”, I thought there must be some strange bug that is loading old news. Alas, this is a new story, with new sources — over fifty people spoke with the reporters, apparently — new evidence, and new allegations. But rather than clarifying the 2018 article, I find that I have many of the same questions now about two blockbuster articles.

Before I get into my confusion, a necessary caveat: I only have information that has been shared publicly and I am a hobbyist commentator, while Robertson and Riley are journalists who have been collecting details for years. These stories matter a lot, and their allegations are profound, but extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. And based on everything that has been reported so far, I just don’t see it yet. Chalk it up to my own confusion and naïveté, but it seems like I am not alone in finding these reports insufficiently compelling.

Here’s the one-paragraph summary: Supermicro is a big company with lots of clients, any of which would be concerned about a backdoor to a foreign intelligence agency in their hardware. According to these reports, the U.S. intelligence apparatus was mobilized to counter the alleged threat. This has been a high-profile case since the first story was published. And I am supposed to believe that, in two and a half years, the only additional reporting that has been done on this story is from the same journalists at the same publication as the original. Why do I not buy that?

Robertson and Riley’s new report concerns the three specific incidents in the quoted portion above. There is no new information about the apparent victims described in their 2018 story. They do not attempt to expand upon stories about what was found on servers belonging to Apple or the Amazon-acquired company Elemental, nor do they retract any of those claims. The new report makes the case that this is a decade-long problem and that, if you believe the 2010, 2014, and 2015 incidents, you can trust those which were described in 2018. But if you don’t trust the 2018 reporting, it is hard to be convinced by this story.

This time around, there are many more sources, some of which agreed to be named. There is still no clear evidence, however. There are no photographs of chips or compromised motherboards. There are no demonstrations of this attack. There is no indication that any of these things were even shown to the reporters. The new incidents are often described by unnamed “former officials”, though there are a handful of people who are willing to have quotes attributed.

So let’s start with the claims of one of those on-the-record sources:

“In early 2018, two security companies that I advise were briefed by the FBI’s counterintelligence division investigating this discovery of added malicious chips on Supermicro’s motherboards,” said Mike Janke, a former Navy SEAL who co-founded DataTribe, a venture capital firm. “These two companies were subsequently involved in the government investigation, where they used advanced hardware forensics on the actual tampered Supermicro boards to validate the existence of the added malicious chips.”

Janke, whose firm has incubated startups with former members of the U.S. intelligence community, said the two companies are not allowed to speak publicly about that work but they did share details from their analysis with him. He agreed to discuss their findings generally to raise awareness about the threat of Chinese espionage within technology supply chains.

Do not be distracted by the description of Janke as a former Navy SEAL. It is irrelevant to this matter.

One of the companies that has received funding from DataTribe is Dragos, which promises “industrial strength cybersecurity for industrial infrastructure”. It is not clear whether Dragos was one of the firms that received an FBI briefing. However, Dragos’ CEO Robert M. Lee has been consistently critical of Robertson and Riley’s reporting. Lee continues to be skeptical of their claims, saying that they have “routinely shown they struggle on technical details”. That becomes apparent in a detail in this adjacent story of apparently compromised Lenovo ThinkPads used by U.S. forces in Iraq in 2008:

“A large amount of Lenovo laptops were sold to the U.S. military that had a chip encrypted on the motherboard that would record all the data that was being inputted into that laptop and send it back to China,” Lee Chieffalo, who managed a Marine network operations center near Fallujah, Iraq, testified during that 2010 case. “That was a huge security breach. We don’t have any idea how much data they got, but we had to take all those systems off the network.”

Three former U.S officials confirmed Chieffalo’s description of an added chip on Lenovo motherboards. The episode was a warning to the U.S. government about altered hardware, they said.

That quote was pulled from a court transcript, and Chieffalo really did say “a chip encrypted on the motherboard”. That phrase is gibberish. It seems likely that Chieffalo meant to say “a chip embedded on the motherboard”, but the transcript includes no attempt at correction. More worrying for this story, Chieffalo was quoted wholesale without any note from the reporters. It seems reasonable that they could not speculate about the intended word choice, but surely they could have reached Chieffalo for clarification. If not, it seems like an odd choice to approvingly quote it; it undermines my trust in the writers’ understanding.

That trust is critical, particularly as this report implies a much more severe allegation. In 2018, Robertson and Riley wrote that Supermicro servers were compromised at the subcontractor level:

During the ensuing top-secret probe, which remains open more than three years later, investigators determined that the chips allowed the attackers to create a stealth doorway into any network that included the altered machines. Multiple people familiar with the matter say investigators found that the chips had been inserted at factories run by manufacturing subcontractors in China.

That suggests some distance between Supermicro itself and its allegedly compromised boards. If this is true, the company has some wiggle room there to disclaim awareness and terminate that supplier relationship. But in today’s report, Robertson and Riley step up the level of Supermicro’s involvement:

Manufacturers like Supermicro typically license most of their BIOS code from third parties. But government experts determined that part of the implant resided in code customized by workers associated with Supermicro, according to six former U.S. officials briefed on the findings.

Investigators examined the BIOS code in Defense Department servers made by other vendors and found no similar issues. And they discovered the same unusual code in Supermicro servers made by different factories at different times, suggesting the implant was introduced in the design phase.

Overall, the findings pointed to infiltration of Supermicro’s BIOS engineering by China’s intelligence agencies, the six officials said.

The report is careful to say that there is no evidence of executive involvement, and that these changes would have been made by people in a position to be working directly with Supermicro’s server technologies. But that still implies knowledge of this alleged compromise at much closer proximity than some factory in China.

The BIOS manipulation above is dated to 2013. The following year, the report says, the FBI detected nefarious chips on “small batches” of Supermicro boards:

Alarmed by the devices’ sophistication, officials opted to warn a small number of potential targets in briefings that identified Supermicro by name. Executives from 10 companies and one large municipal utility told Bloomberg News that they’d received such warnings. While most executives asked not to be named to discuss sensitive cybersecurity matters, some agreed to go on the record.

In 2018, Businessweek said there were up to thirty companies; it is not clear how much overlap there is with the eleven above. But, as Robertson and Riley write, not a single one has said they found evidence of infiltration. Some blamed a dearth of information from the FBI for their inability to find a problem with their servers, but what if the supposed rogue chips simply did not exist? That would make it especially hard to find evidence for them. Just because government agencies are providing briefings of a possible problem, it does not necessarily mean that problem exists as described.

Here’s one more named source with a funny story:

Darren Mott, who oversaw counterintelligence investigations in the bureau’s Huntsville, Alabama, satellite office, said a well-placed FBI colleague described key details about the added chips for him in October 2018.

“What I was told was there was an additional little component on the Supermicro motherboards that was not supposed to be there,” said Mott, who has since retired. He emphasized that the information was shared in an unclassified setting. “The FBI knew the activity was being conducted by China, knew it was concerning, and alerted certain entities about it.”

If there is a phrase that is jumping out to you in this quote, it is probably “October 2018” because that is when Robertson and Riley published their original “Big Hack” piece. It seems completely plausible to me that Mott’s colleague was describing that Businessweek article. There is nothing here that suggests the colleague was referring to independent knowledge. On the contrary, the fact that this was shared in an “unclassified setting” runs counter to the repeated assertions in both articles about the sensitivity and secrecy of these operations — so secret that, apparently, not even Supermicro was supposed to know.

There is one more incident described in detail. This time, Intel was the supposed target in 2014:

Intel’s investigators found that a Supermicro server began communicating with APT 17 shortly after receiving a firmware patch from an update website that Supermicro had set up for customers. The firmware itself hadn’t been tampered with; the malware arrived as part of a ZIP file downloaded directly from the site, according to accounts of Intel’s presentation.

This delivery mechanism is similar to the one used in the recent SolarWinds hack, in which Russians allegedly targeted government agencies and private companies through software updates. But there was a key difference: In Intel’s case, the malware initially turned up in just one of the firm’s thousands of servers — and then in just one other a few months later. Intel’s investigators concluded that the attackers could target specific machines, making detection much less likely. By contrast, malicious code went to as many as 18,000 SolarWinds users.

This posits an incredibly sophisticated attack — but, again, without supporting evidence. The report says that two steel companies based outside of the U.S. received compromised firmware in 2015 and 2018 from that update site. The Bloomberg story does not mention a 2016 case where Apple found an “infected driver” on one of its servers, which it determined to be accidental. All of these cases point back to an update server that Supermicro’s statement implies was not being served over HTTPS — pause for effect — until some time after that 2018 incident. That’s pretty bad security.

But is it possible that these were more isolated events, and not precise attacks? I am not doubting Intel’s investigative competence, but I am questioning whether the details of this internal presentation have been been accurately relayed to Robertson and Riley. There is no indication that the reporters saw the presentation themselves. If you shed the narrative and look at what is being described here, it sounds like APT17 — an infiltration team that FireEye attributes to the Chinese government — might have compromised Supermicro’s update server and planted malware for its clients to inadvertently install. Both Apple and Intel have denied that this was of notable concern. Malware is certainly a worry, though I am having trouble after all this time trusting the reporting I am basing my theory on. But there is a vast chasm between what has become a routine breach of a supplier with high-value clientele, and the supply chain hardware attack that Bloomberg has been reporting for two and a half years now without turning up a single piece of direct evidence.

There is more in Robertson and Riley’s new piece that one can nitpick; Matt Tait put together a comprehensive Twitter thread of concerns, with an acceptable summary:

FWIW, my money is on this whole saga being, if you dig deeply enough, just briefings related to the 2016 supermicro bad firmware update incident filtered through so many games of telephone that it’s eventually twisted itself into a story about tiny chips that never happened.

The problem remains that we just do not know what is going on here. This is not a trivial matter: there are many companies that rely on Supermicro hardware, and they need to know if there is any chance that any of it is compromised. We now have two lengthy and deeply reported stories with ostensibly alarming conclusions that have produced more confusion than clear answers.

A key indicator of the risk seen in these reports is how Supermicro’s clients behaved after these incidents were disclosed. It turns out that many of them — including Intel, the Pentagon, and NASA — have continued to use Supermicro as a supplier. One would think that, if there were concerns about the security of the company’s products, clients would be cancelling contracts left and right.

Everything about this story is wild and hard to believe. Apparently, there were three different vectors of vulnerabilities in Supermicro products: BIOS manipulation, malicious chips, and insecure firmware updates. In Robertson and Riley’s telling, all three have been exploited over the last eleven years. These attacks cover a few dozen high-profile companies and are being investigated by U.S. intelligence agencies; those agencies are briefing other orgnanizations about the danger. Yet there are only two journalists who have heard anything about this, despite this supposed supply chain attack being one of the most-watched information security stories in recent memory, and Supermicro still is not a prohibited vendor.

I would find this more compelling if this story were corroborated by more outlets with different sources, or if Robertson and Riley were able to produce more rigorous evidence. Then, at least, there would be some clarity. Right now, it feels like I’ve seen this movie before.

Ryan Mac and John Paczkowski, Buzzfeed News:

In an email sent this morning and obtained by BuzzFeed News, Apple wrote to Parler’s executives that there had been complaints that the service had been used to plan and coordinate the storming of the US Capitol by President Donald Trump’s supporters on Wednesday. The insurrection left five people dead, including a police officer.

“We have received numerous complaints regarding objectionable content in your Parler service, accusations that the Parler app was used to plan, coordinate, and facilitate the illegal activities in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021 that led (among other things) to loss of life, numerous injuries, and the destruction of property,” Apple wrote to Parler. “The app also appears to continue to be used to plan and facilitate yet further illegal and dangerous activities.”

Apple gave Parler a day from when it sent its letter to submit a new version of the app alongside a moderation policy. Google did not wait; it pulled the app from the Play Store this afternoon.

From Apple’s letter, as quoted in the article:

Your CEO was quoted recently saying “But I don’t feel responsible for any of this and neither should the platform, considering we’re a neutral town square that just adheres to the law.” We want to be clear that Parler is in fact responsible for all the user generated content present on your service and for ensuring that this content meets App Store requirements for the safety and protection of our users. We won’t distribute apps that present dangerous and harmful content.

For what it is worth, it will still be possible to post to Parler from its website even if these apps are removed. It is not as though Parler does not exist on the iPhone after tomorrow when, inevitably, the ostensibly unmoderated platform fails to produce a tighter moderation strategy.

This clearly relates to questions about whether it is fair that users’ native software choices on the iPhone are limited by Apple’s control over the platform and its only software distribution mechanism. It seems reasonable to me that Apple would choose not to provide a platform for apps that have little to no moderation in place. Both Apple and Google disallowed clients for Gab — Twitter but for explicit Nazis — in their respective stores. Apple rejected the app at submission time, while Google permitted it and then pulled it:

Google explained the removal in an e-mail to Ars. “In order to be on the Play Store, social networking apps need to demonstrate a sufficient level of moderation, including for content that encourages violence and advocates hate against groups of people,” the statement read. “This is a long-standing rule and clearly stated in our developer policies. Developers always have the opportunity to appeal a suspension and may have their apps reinstated if they’ve addressed the policy violations and are compliant with our Developer Program Policies.”

Gab now runs on Mastodon, which is a decentralized standard that allows different communities to moderate posts as they choose. There are many Mastodon clients in the App Store, likely because there is not really a singular Mastodon product as much as there are many posts collected through a standard format.

You may have heard that, several months ago, Glenn Greenwald was told by a senior editor at the Intercept, a publication he co-founded, to correct some factually-dubious claims in his work. He claimed this amounted to censorship and quit in a huff to start a new column on Substack with maybe a few friends. For months now, he has sent email newsletters to subscribers with a typically fervent and melodramatic flair. Consider this recent piece which posits that:

  1. The outgoing administration was pretty typical for a U.S. presidency, and to imply that it flirted with authoritarian policies is an irresponsible exaggeration.

  2. The real authoritarians are the executive teams of big tech companies and the incoming administration.

Like many of Greenwald’s columns, there are elements of truth to both of these statements, which have been shorn of context then, depending on the point he is attempting to make, either magnified or minimized for full effect.

I promise I won’t get too much into the weeds with my summary of the first half of Greenwald’s essay because it is the second half that interests me more.1 However, to substantiate the first argument, Greenwald says that the president’s rhetoric often did not match the actions of his administration. For example, though the president repeatedly floated the idea of banning followers of the world’s second-largest religion from entering the United States, the eventual policy amounted to banning travellers from some majority Muslim countries. That is certainly not fair, but the Supreme Court upheld the president’s right to control the borders and, to Greenwald, that means the outgoing president did not display any more of an authoritarian streak than his predecessors that did not attempt to ban entire religions:

Whether Trump secretly harbored despotic ambitions is both unknowable and irrelevant. If he did, he never exhibited the slightest ability to carry them out or orchestrate a sustained commitment to executing a democracy-subverting plot. And the most powerful U.S. institutions — the intelligence community and military brass, Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the corporate media — opposed and subverted him from the start. In sum, U.S. democracy, in whatever form it existed when Trump ascended to the presidency, will endure more or less unchanged once he leaves office on January 20, 2021.

It is not “unknowable” whether he had “despotic ambitions” — it is right there in his speeches and actions, however limp, fact-free, and legally-dubious they were. In the paragraph that precedes this, Greenwald brushes aside the multiple lawsuits filed by this president’s failed reelection campaign because they were implausible.2 But they were real lawsuits because the president really does not want to leave this job. He likes power; you can tell by his, as ProPublica put it, “last-minute killing spree”. It is incorrect to call him an authoritarian. But it is completely accurate to say that he moved more explicitly in that direction than previous administrations, and it is only because of activists and journalists like, yes, Greenwald that checks and balances were mobilized to mollify some of the excesses of this administration.

It is also not irrelevant. This administration is a wake-up call to those in the United States and around the world living in what we like to consider stable advanced democracies that there are politicians with similar and greater ambitions of power. Those people are not as unelectable as we would like to believe. It is also a reminder that the press ought to subject the incoming administration to similar scrutiny. McKay Coppins, the Atlantic:

Yamiche Alcindor, a correspondent for PBS NewsHour, told me she hopes her colleagues will retain the lessons they’ve learned from covering Trump. The default skepticism toward government officials, the aversion to euphemism, the refusal to accept approved narratives—to Alcindor, these are features of a healthy press, not signs that something is amiss. She attributes this attitude to her background covering race and policing. “When something is racist, we should just say it’s racist,” she said. “When someone is lying, we should just say they’re lying.” (Trump has repeatedly singled Alcindor out at press conferences, calling her “threatening” and her questions “nasty.”)

It is Greenwald’s second point which is why I felt compelled to write this, though. I have written extensively about the worries I have about monopolistic companies — particularly in tech and tech-adjacent fields like telecommunications, because that is the kind of column this is — and also about platforms’ failed moderation policies. These are inherently related concepts: as platforms become bigger, their small-scale moderation failures also grow; and, as more communications pass through those platforms, any intervention can appear to be censorship, even when it is not:

As I told the online program Rising this week when asked what the worst media failings of 2020 are, I continue to view the brute censorship by Facebook of incriminating reporting about Joe Biden in the weeks before the election as one of the most significant, and menacing, political events of the last several years. That this censorship was announced by a Facebook corporate spokesman who had spent his career previously as a Democratic Party apparatchik provided the perfect symbolic expression of this evolving danger.

In the Rising clip, Greenwald goes further: first, by misrepresenting other reporting about the New York Post story in question, and also by claiming that Facebook and Twitter “censored the internet” because they algorithmically limited the story’s spread or prevented links to it from being posted. I am still uncertain about whether it was a good idea for either company to attempt to restrict the spread of that story. The closest analogy I can think of is when a stock market or a regulatory body suspends trading of a particular company’s shares because of breaking news.

Twitter, in particular, has become more assertive in labelling tweets that have the potential to spread misinformation. Most notably, it has labelled tweets from the president and other elected officials, as a sort of compromise between removing tweets and leaving these statements up to spread with impunity from figures of authority.

These are only symptom of a much wider problem. These platforms are built for engagement and have few controls to counter bad faith exploitation. There are parallels to this in live television coverage of the president’s rallies, which were often broadcast in full between 2015 and throughout his presidency. That meant that the president was free for ninety minutes to present blatant lies with unprecedented volume before a national audience, only to have news anchors struggle to rebut even a fraction of those claims. Print publications were better suited to contextualize the same statements because they are inherently slower. That does not mean they always — or even often — succeeded, however.

This pandemic brought new waves of misinformation that platforms struggled to control. It is one thing if it is about an election in one country; the stakes are much higher when public health is at risk. Taking a hands-off approach would be a callous display of irresponsibility.3 In a situation that requires nuanced expertise, there is not an open marketplace of ideas for everyone to participate in. Subject matter experts may get things wrong, but it is not because they lack fundamental knowledge. One person’s lightly-informed speculation is not a valid counterargument to an expert’s advice.

The biggest platforms — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube — have engaged in more public moderation of users’ posts this year than at any time before. The executives of these companies are able to influence which posts are promoted and which are demoted. But, contrary to Greenwald’s assertion, none of this can reasonably be called “censorship”, and it is a wild stretch to call executives “authoritarian” and equate it with the behaviour of governments. You may not have been able to share that Hunter Biden story in the New York Post for a few hours, but the Post still has one of the highest circulations of any newspaper in the English-speaking world. Your cousin’s tweet linking this pandemic to, of all things, cellphone towers may have a fact-checking label appended, but they can still post about it. And it seems that this more careful approach to moderation might improve the competitiveness of the social networking space as users flock to ostensibly “unmoderated” platforms — which, in turn, will step up their moderation efforts, just differently. Ironically, these concerns about platform “censorship” are instead creating more options for hosting and sharing. I welcome the narrowing focus of what is allowed on the biggest platforms to lessen their powerful catch-all nature.

But it also has the side effect of putting big public companies between users and the publication of their thoughts, appointing themselves as ultimate arbiters of what they want to see on their platforms. That is difficult and something they will get wrong from time to time, but it is also their prerogative, and it is not as though there are no alternative avenues for publishing. There are other social networks that are vastly smaller, and there are few obstacles to self-publishing. Greenwald writes on Substack, for example, which is an all-in-one product for getting text and images to people; my own website requires moderately more configuration, but I have more control than Greenwald. These alternatives are not as popular and require more promotion, often using bigger platforms. Still, none of this amounts to censorship.

As I have written before, I think the world would, in very general terms, be better served by smaller and more specialized companies. It is completely reasonable to be skeptical of the control held by conglomerates like Google — and Comcast, for that matter. But calling them and the incoming administration “authoritarian”, as Greenwald does in the closing paragraphs of this piece, is a ridiculous assertion, as much if not more so than the flirtations with fascist aspirations of the outgoing administration that Greenwald is so quick to wave away. There are many reasons to wish for greater intervention to reduce monopolization and concentration of power. But it is patently untrue that free expression is somehow more limited for Americans now than it was last year or ten years ago, and the most concerning threat to that has bipartisan support.

What I find so frustrating about this piece is that there is so much I would agree with in Greenwald’s article, if only the histrionics were dialled back by about fifty percent. A similar if more sober observation about these platforms’ gatekeeping characteristics was published by Ben Smith in the New York Times earlier this year. Among this pandemic’s more concerning long-term qualities is how much it increased dependence on big companies — partly because of the economies of scale, partly because of their supply chains, and partly because a large store operating at reduced capacity is still a large store that can fit many people. Working from home also means increased dependency on big communications companies. The outgoing U.S. administration tested the limits of existing powers already held by government. But Greenwald’s obsession with being a permanent contrarian obscures these quite reasonable points with alarmism and misdirection.


  1. My head throbs when I read Greenwald’s screeds, even when our opinions overlap. For what it is worth, there is much to like about the substance of this piece. I only wish Greenwald employed the services of an editor. And, yes, I recognize the irony. ↥︎

  2. Greenwald:

    The last gasp for those clinging to the Trump-as-dictator fantasy (which was really hope masquerading as concern, since putting yourself on the front lines, bravely fighting domestic fascism, is more exciting and self-glorifying, not to mention more profitable, than the dreary, mediocre work of railing against an ordinary and largely weak one-term president) was the hysterical warning that Trump was mounting a coup in order to stay in office. Trump’s terrifying “coup” consisted of a series of failed court challenges based on claims of widespread voter fraud — virtually inevitable with new COVID-based voting rules never previously used — and lame attempts to persuade state officials to overturn certified vote totals. There was never a moment when it appeared even remotely plausible that it would succeed, let alone that he could secure the backing of the institutions he would need to do so, particularly senior military leaders.

    One could point out that it is “hope masquerading as concern” and “exciting and self-glorifying” to find an excuse to leave a publication one co-founded because an editor wanted to stick to fact-based analysis instead of extending ultraprocessed grains of truth, only to begin a paid Substack newsletter gig that, by one’s own admission, was already in the works:

    Prior to the extraordinary experience of being censored this week by my own news outlet, I had already been exploring the possibility of creating a new media outlet. I have spent a couple of months in active discussions with some of the most interesting, independent and vibrant journalists, writers and commentators across the political spectrum about the feasibility of securing financing for a new outlet that would be designed to combat these trends.

    But, sure, let’s call it “censorship”. ↥︎

  3. One of the examples Greenwald gives to minimize the president’s authoritarian tendencies was his delayed use of the Defense Production Act to redirect American manufacturing efforts for pandemic-related issues — if he really did have dictatorial aspirations, he would surely jump on that opportunity like a kid in a bouncy castle. Greenwald reframes this one instance where there was bipartisan pleading for the president to be more authoritarian and his refusal to take control over a serious situation as reason to believe he’s just like any other president which, you know, fine.

    But this is a big problem with Greenwald’s simplified use of words like “censor” and “authoritarian”. In the case of a pandemic, we need expert figures that we can trust. You can superficially frame this as becoming “more authoritarian”, but a public health crisis is one instance where there must be candid and unified explanations of risk, prevention methods, and plans — especially since all of those things will change over time with new information.

    This is one thing Greenwald gets absolutely right in his interview on Rising: popular media botched explanations for why political rallies were being cancelled and people were being encouraged to stay away from religious gatherings, yet participation in this summer’s widespread protests against systemic racial injustice was not acknowledged by some of the same outlets as a public health concern. There are, it turns out, key differences between rallies and marched protests that explain why many of the former have been considered “super spreader” events but not the latter, as Lawrence Wright writes in the overwhelming single-essay latest issue of the New Yorker:

    Surprisingly, the marches did not appear to be significant drivers of transmission. “We tested thousands of people,” Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, at the University of Minnesota, said. “We saw no appreciable impact.” One study found lower rates of infection among marchers than in their surrounding communities. Epidemiologists concluded that mask wearing and being outdoors protected the protesters. Moreover, demonstrators were on the move. Osterholm said that people in stationary crowds are more likely to become infected. In other words, joining a protest march is inherently less dangerous than attending a political rally.

    This makes sense, and many of these facts were known at the time, but there was a lacking public dialogue to explain the difference between all of these things. Trusted figures of authority sure would have been helpful.

    Maybe what I meant by “not getting into the weeds” is that the weeds would be entirely in footnotes. ↥︎

Jeff Horwitz and Keach Hagey, Wall Street Journal:

As Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. have taken a more assertive role in curbing content on their platforms, prominent conservatives on both platforms have responded with a frequent retort: Follow me on Parler.

Launched in 2018, the libertarian-leaning social network was the most downloaded app on both Android and Apple devices for most of last week, according to data from Google and analytics firm App Annie. Its leaders envision it as a free-speech-focused alternative to the giants of Silicon Valley.

The platform also has some deep-pocketed investors. Rebekah Mercer, daughter of hedge-fund investor Robert Mercer, is among the company’s financial backers, according to people familiar with the matter. The Mercers have previously financed a number of conservative causes.

Mercer and Parler co-founder John Matze confirmed Mercer’s involvement. The Mercer family are mega-donors to Republican causes, though they often describe themselves as “libertarian”, according to a 2017 profile by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker. According to Mercer, Rebekah’s father, Robert, made his money running a hedge fund, and has used those earnings to fund Breitbart, effectively invented the Islamophobic “Ground Zero Mosque” myth, and thinks the 1964 Civil Rights Act was a “major mistake”.

They are not good people, is all I am saying.

Let’s get back to Parler, a website that Horwitz and Hagey describe in charitable terms. For example, they compare it to Twitter and Facebook’s personalized timelines based on user activity (emphasis mine):

Parler doesn’t do that. The platform doesn’t use content-recommendation algorithms, collects almost no data about its users and, for privacy reasons, hasn’t provided the tools to let users easily cross-post from other platforms. Parler simply shows users all the posts from everyone they follow, in reverse chronological order.

I tried registering for new accounts on Twitter and Parler. On Twitter, you can choose whether to use an email address or a phone number; when you register for Parler, you must provide both. If this is an anti-spam measure, it hasn’t worked. Parler suggests several popular hashtags to look at; one is #parler, naturally, and every post is currently either a sketchy ad for nude photos on Blogspot, or promoting pills that are “better than cocaine”.

Verification on Parler is open to everyone, but you need to submit a scan of either your driver’s license or your passport. You can also give them your Social Security Number. And, yes, Parler extensively tracks your use of its website and app. While it may not track you across the web like Facebook, it is not accurate to claim that it “collects almost no [user] data”.

Or how about this?

While Parler’s terms of service allow the app to tailor content for its users in the future, executives said they were committed to their libertarian principles.

“We’re choosing to be a neutral platform,” said Jeffrey Wernick, the company’s chief operating officer.

When this ostensibly neutral platform had its first wave of popularity in June, it rapidly banned dozens of users who apparently did not align with Parler’s definition of “free speech”, including Ed Bott for posting only “let’s see how long it takes the shitheels running this toilet to kick me out”. It took less than one day. It also banned Devin Nunes’ Cow.

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

As we said, they’ve sort of speed-run the content moderation learning curve that every website goes through when they claim to support free speech. They insist they’ll allow anything. Then they start banning spammers. Then trolls. And, that’s the same damn thing Twitter does, and even here they’re admitting that they’re banning “leftist trolls.” In fact, over the past week or so we keep having people showing up on our article from the summer about Parler banning users it doesn’t like and screaming at us about how it’s okay because they’re just banning trolls. But, that’s the point. That’s what Twitter is doing too. Except that Twitter isn’t complaining about ideological trolls.

It’s only Parler that seems to be staking out an ideological claim, trying to ban “leftist” trolls after being cofounded by one of the most extreme partisans around, who laughably claims that Parler will be neutral.

Platforms have wide freedoms to pick and choose what users and posts they permit or deny. That is fine; community management and moderation are necessary attributes of any platform. But only Parler is pretending that it is a bastion of free expression and user privacy, and the Journal ate it up.

Yesterday, in my summary of Apple’s first own-designed Mac processors, I wrote:

Despite the M1 being an apparently entry-level configuration, Apple is promoting big performance gains. Graphics on the MacBook Air, it says, are up to five times faster than the highest-specced Intel model; on the MacBook Pro page, it says that machine learning performance is eleven times faster. Those are big leaps for complex tasks, but we’ve been down this road before. The Intel iMac was said to be two to three times faster than the PowerPC model it replaced, while the first MacBook Pro was apparently four to five times faster. Those tests were conducted using benchmarking tools, while the comparisons this year are being made using real-world tasks. All of this is to say that we can’t know just yet how fast these new Macs are. Even though they are not Apple’s most performative products, could they perhaps out-perform their Intel-based cousins? Or are they modest updates that help guide users and first- and third-party developers onto a new platform?

It appears that, today, we have an answer.

Juli Clover, MacRumors (emphasis in the original and very appropriate):

The M1 chip, which belongs to a MacBook Air with 8GB RAM, features a single-core score of 1687 and a multi-core score of 7433. According to the benchmark, the M1 has a 3.2GHz base frequency.

[…]

In comparison to Macs, the single-core performance is better than any other available Mac, and the multi-core performance beats out all of the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro models, including the 10th-generation high-end 2.4GHz Intel Core i9 model. That high-end 16-inch MacBook Pro earned a single-core score of 1096 and a multi-core score of 6870.

Benchmarks for the two other M1 models have also appeared on Geekbench and show similar performance. Again, I will stress that testing does not necessarily translate directly to real-world performance, but it certainly seems like the ostensibly lowest-end Macs you can buy are outperformed only by the highest-end desktop Mac configurations and only in multicore tasks.

And, apparently, the two notebooks also get about one-and-a-half to two times the battery life of their Intel-based predecessors. Oh, and the MacBook Air doesn’t have a fan.

I was prepared for big gains, but I am stunned by these results.

Yesterday, Tim Bradshaw and Patrick McGee of the Financial Times reported that Apple is ostensibly building a rival to Google’s search engine. You can find a syndicated copy of the article at Ars Technica. It left me scratching my head because it undermines its premise on two fronts: it seems to claim that Apple is surely building a true rival to Google’s search engine, and that Apple does not already have a search engine. The first claim does not seem to be substantiated, and the second seems to be contradicted by the article’s own reporting.

Let’s start with the headline:

Apple Develops Alternative to Google Search

“Develops” is a curious and ambiguous choice of word. It leaves the impression that Apple is either currently working on a true Google Search competitor, or that it has already built one. I am not sure which is the case; let’s find out. Here’s the lede:

Apple is stepping up efforts to develop its own search technology as US antitrust authorities threaten multibillion-dollar payments that Google makes to secure prime placement of its engine on the iPhone.

That indicates, to me, that this search engine is something new or more directly opposing Google’s efforts. But it is followed by this paragraph:

In a little-noticed change to the latest version of the iPhone operating system, iOS 14, Apple has begun to show its own search results and link directly to websites when users type queries from its home screen.

This seems to refer to Siri web suggestions that used to only display within the Safari address bar but are now in Spotlight. As far as I can tell, these are exactly the same suggestions but surfaced in a different place.

There are also keyword search suggestions in Spotlight. But tapping on any of those will boot you into the search engine of your choice — whichever you set in Safari preferences.

Both certainly point to Apple shipping a search engine today. It may not be a website with a list of links based on a query, but Google’s search engine is increasingly unlike that, too. So I am left with the impression that this is a service that currently exists, but then the article posits that it is merely a warm-up act:

That web search capability marks an important advance in Apple’s in-house development and could form the foundation of a fuller attack on Google, according to several people in the industry.

Here is where things become more speculative. Bradshaw and McGee make no reference to having any sources at Apple, only quotes from a handful of people in adjacent businesses. Maybe they have background information from people who are familiar with Apple’s efforts, but nothing is cited in this article. The claim that Apple is, perhaps, working on a direct competitor to Google’s web search engine appears to be nothing more than speculation about what Apple could do from people who believe that it is something Apple is doing. That position seems to be predicated on regulatory pressures and recent hires:

Two and a half years ago, Apple poached Google’s head of search, John Giannandrea. The hire was ostensibly to boost its artificial intelligence capabilities and its Siri virtual assistant, but also brought eight years of experience running the world’s most popular search engine.

[…]

“They [Apple] have a credible team that I think has the experience and the depth, if they wanted to, to build a more general search engine,” said Bill Coughran, Google’s former engineering chief, who is now a partner at Silicon Valley investor Sequoia Capital.

Apple’s interest in a search engine seems to be a regular rumour, but now that its contract with Google is attracting attention in the United States and United Kingdom, perhaps there is more substance this time around than in previous years. That raises more questions for me from an antitrust perspective: for example, would regulators who questioned the prominence of Siri on Apple’s devices find it equally dubious for the company to have its own search engine presumably set as the default?

Whatever the case, I am not sure this Financial Times piece sheds light on Apple’s path forward. The only substantive fact in this article is that Apple has expanded Safari’s Siri suggestions to Spotlight. Everything else appears to be speculative.