Search Results for: ostensibly

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.

Bear with me because this gets into the weeds a bit before you’ll get to the headline topic. Skip to the block quotes if you are already caught up on your Fox News shibboleths.

Yesterday, the New York Post published an extremely suspect story about alleged impropriety by Joe Biden and his son Hunter while the latter was working for Burisma, a Ukrainian oil company — something all parties deny. This is something the Republican Party has been desperate to create a scandal from despite their own investigation finding no misconduct by either Biden. The Post sourced its claims, via Rudy Giuliani, from emails and photos ostensibly taken from a laptop Hunter had taken in for service. Then, several hours after the Post published its story, Facebook decided to limit its spread, while Twitter opted to block links to it. And now it has become a whole thing.

There are many interesting questions that we can probe in the meta-story around this article. For example, the New York Times reported that U.S. intelligence agencies had concerns that hacked emails from Burisma would be combined with forged or edited ones — a tactic Russian intelligence has used before. The Washington Post reports that Giuliani was a target for spreading false information. There is evidence that the Post’s story is based on false information designed to sway the U.S. election in a manner reminiscent of other Russian disinformation campaigns. In fact, this whole saga is awfully familiar: leaked emails, Russian hacking. Didn’t we already do this? I want to bash my head into my desk.

The difference this time around is that Facebook and Twitter are intervening to slow the story’s spread. Is that right? If this is, indeed, an attempt at interference in the election, you may argue that this is a good thing — or is, at least, understandable. It is an unusually strong stance from Facebook and Twitter on a specific story. That has made it a rough day or two from a public relations perspective, as some people see it as censorship or tilting the scales. But one thing is for sure: it is completely legal. And members of the Republican party desperately want to change that.

Siobhan Hughes, Wall Street Journal:

The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to issue a subpoena on Tuesday to Twitter Inc. Chief Executive Jack Dorsey after the social-media company blocked a pair of New York Post articles that made new allegations about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, which his campaign has denied.

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai is backing President Donald Trump’s proposal to limit legal protections for social media websites that block or modify content posted by users. Pai’s views on the matter were unknown until today when he issued a statement saying that he will open a rule-making process to clarify that the First Amendment does not give social media companies “special immunity.”

Mike Masnick, Techdirt:

For years, FCC Chair Ajit Pai has insisted that the thing that was most important to him was to have a “light touch” regulatory regime regarding the internet. He insisted that net neutrality (which put in place a few limited rules to make sure internet access was fair) was clearly a bridge too far, and had to be wiped out or it would destroy investment into internet infrastructure (he was wrong about that). But now that Section 230 is under attack, he’s apparently done a complete reversal. He is now happy to open a proceeding to reinterpret Section 230 to place a regulatory burden on the internet. This is because Ajit Pai is a hypocrite with no backbone, and no willingness to stand up to a grandstanding President.

[…]

Pai is wrong in almost everything he says above. The FCC has no jurisdiction over internet websites. Previous lawsuits have already held that. Furthermore, the FCC has no jurisdiction over Section 230, which was explicitly written to deny the FCC any authority over websites. The FCC has no power to reinterpret the law.

If you think Facebook or Twitter ought not to have moderated the New York Post story, that is a fair point of view. If, however, you believe their moderation decision should be illegal, the problem you have is not with Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, it is with the First Amendment.

Years of U.S. case law have upheld that businesses are free to deny service to whomever they choose, with exceptions made for cases of discrimination. Twitter has no obligation to host links to that Post story any more than it has an obligation to host spam or your account.

Perhaps your dispute with this action is that heavy-handed moderation by large social media companies is effectively a tool of silencing and censorship. But I would strongly disagree with that: the Post is widely circulated, there are many other venues online, and it is still possible to discuss it on Facebook and Twitter without linking to it. But even if that were true, your problem would be with the scale of both companies, not with Section 230 as written or interpreted.

Nothing about these moderation decisions have anything to do with CDA Section 230. Promises to investigate Facebook and Twitter because they made it harder to spread a link are a gigantic waste of time. It is perhaps worth discussing ways in which Section 230 can be clarified or reworked, but it is not something Pai or the FCC has any control over, nor is it relevant to anything these ostensibly light-regulation “small government” conservatives want to achieve.

This is all so very stupid.

I have now read the antitrust report about one-and-a-half times and I can confidently say that you, reader, are better served by the analysis of others. I do not think a long piece from me, a non-lawyer, trying to interpret its various nooks and crannies is helpful. So, what I can do is point you to a few smart people who wrote about it, and also add a few idle observations of my own.

I think Wednesday’s episode of Dithering offers a great high-level take. I was stunned by the million-plus documents Google produced which, as John Gruber and Ben Thompson point out, appears to be an attempt at overwhelming investigators instead of being helpful.

But I take issue with both hosts’ interpretation of the CEO’s questioning in July and the resulting lack of surprise in this report. They portray this as begging the question in the classic rhetorical sense of deriving a question from a presumed answer or position. What I saw were representatives testing a thesis: the CEOs they were questioning represent tech companies that have become very powerful, potentially through illegal means.

If you have a Dithering subscription and haven’t listened to Wednesday’s episode yet, it’s worth your while.

Kate Cox, Ars Technica:

Facebook outright “has monopoly power in the market for social networking,” the report concludes, and that power is “firmly entrenched and unlikely to be eroded by competitive pressure” from anyone at all due to “high entry barriers—including strong network effects, high switching costs, and Facebook’s significant data advantage—that discourage direct competition by other firms to offer new products and services.”

[…]

But regulators did not block Facebook’s blockbuster acquisitions of either Instagram or WhatsApp, and they didn’t stop 60 other Facebook acquisitions. This led to what one former employee described to the committee as collusion between the platforms, “but with an internal monopoly.” The employee added: “If you own two social media utilities, they should not be allowed to shore each other up. It’s unclear to me why this should not be illegal. You can collude by acquiring competitors and forbidding competition.”

The report attempts to distinguish between social media platforms and social networks. TikTok, it points out, is often cited as a knee-jerk counterpoint to the argument that it is hard to succeed against Facebook’s acquisition strategy. But, it says, TikTok is more like YouTube than Facebook or Instagram.

One thing that struck me as I read the report is how many acquisitions were involved in making all four companies as dominant as they have become. Acquisitions are a clear focus of the investigation; the last forty-odd pages of the report is simply a list of every significant acquisition made by Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. Some of these companies would likely have disappeared and taken their technologies with them had they not been acquired, but others may have competed against tech giants or offered complementary products while remaining independent. It is impossible to know for sure. But acquisition-driven strategies have arguably created a market where it is increasingly difficult for anyone to even try. Success seems less determined by how well-used a product or service is, and more by which company will acquire it and for what price.

Cox:

Google’s position as the dominant search engine is well-cemented. But over the past 20 years, the company has shifted its behavior “to rank search results based on what is best for Google, rather than what is best for search users,” the report concludes, “be it preferencing its own vertical sites or allocating more space for ads.”

I am encouraged to see the report portray AMP as a technology hostile to competition and the web as a whole.

The report also raises concerns with all four companies about user privacy. Apple’s marketing focus on privacy was also questioned with regard to its ability to limit competition ostensibly on those grounds. I think the report was generally fair in its worry about the implications of having a few companies stewards by default of so much sensitive data. But though there are many recommendations in favour of limiting market dominance, I saw none for regulating the collection and use of private user data. Of course, this was a report about antitrust and anti-competitive practices; but, it seems like the committee only told half the story without recommending strong rules on user privacy.

Casey Newton, writing for his brand new newsletter Platformer:

On the other hand, even these recommendations aren’t likely to become law any time soon. America’s divided Congress has been defined by inaction this year; it is currently failing to provide basic economic relief to tens of millions of Americans during a historic pandemic. And we expect these lawmakers to pass a thoughtful collection of reforms and get the president to sign it?

In fairness, the committee has been clear that nothing will pass this year. For anything to pass at all, Democrats may have to take back the presidency and the Senate, and make it through what promises to be a chaotic and even dangerous transfer of power. Until and unless that happens, the status quo seems likely to endure.

This report is comprehensive. Returning to the Dithering episode, it is true that I found few surprises when I read it. Yet, it is worthwhile to compile all of these questionable practices into a single document. It drops like an anvil — both because of its volume and the impact of seeing these practices laid bare in such clarity. I hope it does more than gather dust. These companies are wildly powerful. Whether you believe that power should be cut down or simply be subject to greater responsibility and oversight, you will find sensible arguments in this report.

But I am not a lawyer.

Apple PR:

Apple today announced financial results for its fiscal 2020 third quarter ended June 27, 2020. The Company posted quarterly revenue of $59.7 billion, an increase of 11 percent from the year-ago quarter, and quarterly earnings per diluted share of $2.58, up 18 percent. International sales accounted for 60 percent of the quarter’s revenue.

Ina Fried, Axios:

In a conference call following blowout earnings, CFO Luca Maestri said that supply of the new iPhones will come “a few weeks later” than last year, when the new models went on sale in late September.

Mark Gurman on Twitter:

Cook also said that the pandemic likely hurt iPhone and wearables sales, but boosted iPad and Mac purchases. Also said AppleCare and ads were impacted, but said they made record revenue for the App Store, Apple Music, video and cloud services.

Jason Snell notes that this is a record-breaking third quarter. I bet Tim Cook is relieved these results were not yet public during yesterday’s hearing, when big tech companies were accused of profiteering during the pandemic.

Emily McCormick, Yahoo:

Facebook reported second-quarter results that handily topped estimates, growing its user base and advertising business further even during the pandemic and as the social media giant came under increased scrutiny for its policies around policing harmful content on its platforms.

Shares of Facebook rose 5% in late trading to $246.83, as of 4:09 p.m. ET following results.

Casey Newton, the Verge:

The surge in Facebook usage during early shelter-in-place orders in the United States was not just a blip. Daily users of Facebook increased 12 percent year over year, to 1.79 billion. Monthly usage across its family of apps, which also include Instagram and WhatsApp, rose 14 percent, to 3.14 billion. And Facebook’s mostly ad-based based business rose along with them: the company’s revenue was up 11 percent year over year, to $18.69 billion.

It’s not just the uncertainty of the markets right now — Facebook was also ostensibly the target of an advertiser boycott. It didn’t appear to have much impact. I bet Mark Zuckerberg is relieved these results were not yet public during yesterday’s hearing, when big tech companies were accused of profiteering during the pandemic.

Annie Palmer, CNBC:

Amazon reported blowout second-quarter results on Thursday, including a huge beat on the top line and double-digit revenue growth year-over-year, helped by surging sales amid the coronavirus pandemic. The stock climbed about 5.3% after hours.

[…]

Third-party sales grew 52% year-over-year during the quarter, outpacing growth in Amazon’s first-party sales, which increased 48% year-over-year.

I bet Jeff Bezos is relieved these results were not yet public during yesterday’s hearing, when big tech companies were accused of profiteering during the pandemic.

Jennifer Elias, CNBC:

Google parent-company Alphabet beat expectations for its second quarter earnings Thursday, but marked its first revenue decline in company history as the coronavirus pandemic slowed economic growth and advertisers pulled back spending during the quarter. The company’s stock barely moved after hours.

Natalie Gagliordi, ZDNet:

Strong growth in Google’s cloud business helped buoy an otherwise challenging quarter for Alphabet, as ad revenues across Search and YouTube struggle to rebound to pre-pandemic levels.

I bet Sundar Pichai is relieved yadda yadda.

The reality is that all four of these companies are infrastructural elements of working from home — even Facebook, which provides messaging services, can be considered essential. As far as I know, none of them deliberately increased prices to reflect higher demand. Some products did see a jump on Amazon, but that was the result of gougers exploiting the platform combined with the company’s dynamic pricing; Amazon said it was trying to combat gouging. But that’s a side-effect of already-established pricing mechanisms, not an indication that Amazon was taking advantage of a pandemic.

That’s not to say that these companies are benevolent. Whether they kept prices the same out of ethical obligation or simply because it would be a public relations nightmare is up to the whims of your particular brand of cynicism. Maybe it’s a little of both. In a tumultuous economy and with record unemployment in the United States, it sure is hard to look at these numbers and see them as something to celebrate, per se. These earnings are a reflection of the outsized role played by all four companies — and Microsoft, which announced strong growth last week. Tech companies don’t need to engage in profiteering when they are already so dominant.

Ryan Tracy, Wall Street Journal:

The chief executives of Amazon.com Inc., Facebook Inc., Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google faced relentless criticism at a congressional hearing Wednesday, with Democrats and Republicans alike challenging their business practices.

[…]

The hearing was marked by lawmakers interrupting witnesses before they finished their responses. Mr. Bezos’ video feed went out early in the session, causing Mr. Cicilline to call a recess. At the outset, instead of asking the witnesses to stand and swear to tell the truth, Mr. Cicilline had a different request: “Unmute your microphones and raise your right hands.”

This was ostensibly a hearing about antitrust violations and anti-competitive behaviour, but Republicans by and large used it as an opportunity to accuse Google and Facebook, primarily, of being biased against American conservatives. For example, here’s Florida man Greg Steube recapping some of his questioning on Twitter:

When I confronted Google’s CEO about conservative censorship, he dodged the question.

His company allows videos of violence but blocks videos of medical doctors discussing a medication to treat COVID-19. We need answers and accountability.

It is a symptom of a jaundiced political environment that medical efficacy is being used by people like Rep. Steube as a wedge in his culture war conspiracy theories. It is also completely bananas that he equates minimizing harm from the spread of unproven coronavirus miracle cures with silencing conservative voices.

Rene Ritchie:

At what point does it sink in for Zuckerberg and Pachai that the anti-trust hearings — and fates of their companies — now rest, in part, with people their own algorithms, in part, helped indoctrinate into the cockamamie conspiracy theories now being weaponized against them?

Axios reporter Sara Fischer:

Tech execs always get a free pass from being pressed on serious, substantive issues when they go to The Hill because conservatives, who should care deeply about fair competition, are too distracted by unproven allegations of political censorship.

My problem is not with conservatism more generally, or even necessarily Republicans. It is with a handful of morons — Rep. Steube, Rep. Jordan, Rep. Gaetz, and Rep. Sensenbrenner — who wasted their entire questioning by soapboxing these plainly false theories. A useful public service would be to create a copy of this hearing without their bad faith questioning and, in Rep. Jordan’s case, frequent interruptions. Their presence was an embarrassment that only served to feed the most cynical of people who believe that regulation is inherently bad.

Happily, most of the Democrats on the Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee stayed on topic and repeatedly dug into these companies’ business models, acquisition strategies, and anticompetitive practices. The Verge apparently received under embargo internal Facebook emails discussing a potential acquisition of Instagram. The story, by Casey Newton and Nilay Patel, was published concurrent with Rep. Nadler’s questioning:

It’s a combination of neutralizing a competitor and improving Facebook, Zuckerberg said in a reply. “There are network effect around social products and a finite number of different social mechanics to invent. Once someone wins at a specific mechanic, it’s difficult for others to supplant them without doing something different.”

Zuckerberg continued: “One way of looking at this is that what we’re really buying is time. Even if some new competitors springs up, buying Instagram, Path, Foursquare, etc now will give us a year or more to integrate their dynamics before anyone can get close to their scale again. Within that time, if we incorporate the social mechanics they were using, those new products won’t get much traction since we’ll already have their mechanics deployed at scale.”

Forty-five minutes later, Zuckerberg sent a carefully worded clarification to his earlier, looser remarks.

“I didn’t mean to imply that we’d be buying them to prevent them from competing with us in any way,” he wrote.

Nice save.

Tim Cook’s opening remarks, meanwhile, stuck to Apple’s current antitrust messaging, flaws and all. Rob Pegoraro, Forbes:

Cook has a stronger case with mobile apps. Installing apps on early handheld organizers was not so easy, requiring a download to a computer and then a transfer to the gadget. But by the mid 2000s, Palm OS handhelds and smartphones hosted a thriving market for third-party software.

Apple first ignored that precedent: A year before the iOS App Store’s debut, Steve Jobs told developers to content themselves with shipping web apps for the iPhone.

“The App Store certainly added efficiency and greater breadth, which I wouldn’t argue with—but that’s a function of improving technology,” emailed Mark Vena, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy (his firm also posts on Forbes).

The App Store’s exclusivity over native iOS app distribution rarely came up during today’s hearing, and Cook deftly sidestepped questions about Apple’s control over the market. At one point, when asked about control, he noted that Apple does not control web apps. That’s entirely true, but I cannot recall anyone pressing Cook on whether that’s a fair comparison. Web apps and native apps do not have all of the same capabilities,1 and there is no other avenue by which native apps may be installed on the most popular smartphone model in the United States, the most popular tablet in the United States, the most popular watch in the United States, or an Apple TV.

I wish it were not so easy for Cook to deflect.

Peter Kafka of Vox nailed it before the hearing began:

Some of you already know that congressional hearings are just that — a chance to hear from citizens and government officials. At a minimum, they are a place to get public answers on the record, like the grilling US Attorney General William Barr received from the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday over everything from his handling of the Mueller investigation to his use of federal troops to quell protests in Washington, DC, and Portland, Oregon.

And sometimes, like in Wednesday’s case, they can also be high-profile bits of theater.

Aside from the theatre, gotcha moments, and wild conspiracy theories, what this hearing demonstrated is that insipid antitrust enforcement has failed the American consumer for decades. I’m Canadian — the biggest tech companies in the world are mostly American, but I feel the side effects of a lack of regulatory responsibility.


  1. I have previously argued that this is a good thing, and I stand by that. ↥︎

Shaun Nichols, the Register:

A string of “zero logging” VPN providers have some explaining to do after more than a terabyte of user logs were found on their servers unprotected and facing the public internet.

This data, we are told, included in at least some cases clear-text passwords, personal information, and lists of websites visited, all for anyone to stumble upon.

It all came to light this week after Comparitech’s Bob Diachenko spotted 894GB of records in an unsecured Elasticsearch cluster that belonged to UFO VPN.

An un-bylined report from vpnMentor dug deeper:

The vpnMentor research team, led by Noam Rotem, uncovered the server and found Personally Identifiable Information (PII) data for potentially over 20 million VPN users, according to claims of user numbers made by the VPNs.

Each of these VPNs claims that their services are “no-log” VPNs, which means that they don’t record any user activity on their respective apps. However, we found multiple instances of internet activity logs on their shared server. This was in addition to the PII data, which included email addresses, clear text passwords, IP addresses, home addresses, phone models, device ID, and other technical details.

The VPNs affected are UFO VPN, FAST VPN, Free VPN, Super VPN, Flash VPN, Secure VPN, and Rabbit VPN – all of which appear to be connected by a common app developer and white-labeled for other companies.

Let’s set aside the logging story for now — Dreamfii HK, the creator of all of these VPN services, denies that the logs are exactly as described and claims that their presence does not undermine its claim that these services do not log users’ activity. I want to focus on this business of white labelling, as it is rampant in the VPN world.

There are so many companies that promote VPN reselling as a get-rich-quick business that it makes it hard to trust any provider. NordVPN, for example, is a well-regarded service that resells its infrastructure to many other brands — BullGuard is one such customer, according to Trusted Reviews, but I cannot find any acknowledgement of this arrangement other than a 2018 press release. There is no instance that I can see of NordVPN in BullGuard’s marketing materials and other customer-facing pages.

In a June report, Katie Kasunic of vpnMentor found seven companies that own dozens of VPNs between them, usually only acknowledging their ties in legal documents or press releases. However, Kasunic does not state anywhere that NordVPN offers its own white label service, even as vpnMentor heavily promotes and recommends it.

This kind of reminds me of the food supply chain. I don’t know if you’ve ever flipped through the recalls issued by Health Canada, the FDA, or your local equivalent, but it’s an educational experience. You’ll often see entries, like this one for salads or this one for margarine, with lists of several ostensibly competing brands contaminated with the same stuff from the same plant.

There is nothing inherently wrong with white labelled goods and services, but I do think their use is inadequately disclosed. It is detrimental to our understanding of what we are buying and makes it hard to compare different products.

This series of posts compiled by Michael Tsai regarding Down Dog’s App Store rejection — ostensibly for not automatically charging users after a free trial period has lapsed — illustrates the still-confusing world of subscription pricing. Everything from an app’s registration screen, through the free trial process, and through cancellation is, for any app, not good enough for users and developers.

I think there is a lot that Apple can and should do to improve subscriptions. First, I agree with Ryan Jones that the subscription opt-in process should be consistent systemwide. To say that Apple’s design guidance isn’t always followed would be an understatement. Bad faith merchants have exploited subscriptions for years and, even with a team attempting to crack down on abuses, it remains a problem.

In the midst of the controversy a couple of weeks ago regarding Hey’s rejection, I saw plenty of calls for Apple to allow third-party payment processors within apps. I understand that argument and I get why Apple’s solution sucks for developers for reasons beyond money. But the in-app payment screen means that I don’t have to trust that an app from some developer is going to steal my credit card details. I prefer Apple’s dialog to just about anything else I’ve used. I’d like to see it improved and extended to the entire subscription process, not scrapped.

Second, users should be notified when billing is about to start after a free trial and be allowed to cancel in the notification. I’m sure this will cut into revenue for some apps, but it’s only fair to users.

Third, I think active subscriptions need to be easier to find. Right now, the easiest way to find them is either via the App Store, by tapping on the profile picture in the upper-right, or in Settings in the topmost menu item. But neither of these things look like buttons — the item in the App Store is just a picture, and the Settings menu item looks like no other table view cell in iOS. Its description also provides only the faintest of clues: “Apple ID, iCloud, Media & Purchases”. It does not say “subscriptions”.

Lastly, apps should be required to show a “cancel subscription” button in their settings if they offer subscription purchases. Making it easy to cancel shows a degree of trust and transparency that the subscription is worth the cost. Good apps lock users in by being continuously compelling, not by making cancellations difficult.

The Anti-Defamation League:

In response to Facebook’s repeated failure to meaningfully address the vast proliferation of hate on its platforms, six organizations today announced a new campaign, #StopHateforProfit, that asks large Facebook advertisers to show they will not support a company that puts profit over safety. ADL (the Anti-Defamation League), the NAACP, Sleeping Giants, Color Of Change, Free Press and Common Sense have created a coalition of the nation’s most storied civil rights organizations calling for some of the world’s largest corporations to pause advertising on Facebook during the month of July 2020.

Megan Graham, CNBC:

Verizon said on Thursday it is pulling advertising on Facebook until the company “can create an acceptable solution that makes us comfortable.”

A company spokesperson said the pause applies to both Facebook and Instagram. It comes as marketers including Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia and REI have also said they plan to pause advertising on the platforms.

Anthony Ha, TechCrunch:

Then today, it was joined by consumer goods giant Unilever, which said it will halt all U.S. advertising on Facebook, Instagram (owned by Facebook) and even Twitter, at least until the end of the year.

“Based on the current polarization and the election that we are having in the U.S., there needs to be much more enforcement in the area of hate speech,” Unilever’s executive vice president of global media Luis Di Como told The Wall Street Journal.

Put a pin in “Unilever”.

Hannah Murphy, Financial Times:

A leading Facebook executive has told advertisers the company is suffering from a “trust deficit” as it tries to stop brands joining a boycott over its policies on political content moderation.

The world’s largest social media group joined a conference call with almost 200 advertisers on Tuesday, according to people familiar with the discussion. Senior policy executives then defended Facebook’s decision to allow several controversial posts from US president Donald Trump to remain on its platform.

According to leaked audio of the call obtained by the Financial Times, Neil Potts, Facebook’s head of trust and safety policy, acknowledged that the company suffered from a “trust deficit” but added that it was “here to listen” to its clients’ concerns. The call was convened by the Interactive Advertising Bureau trade body in Canada.

Tanya Dua, Business Insider (both this and the Financial Times link above are ostensibly paywalled, but I trust that you are clever):

Mark Zuckerberg this week addressed a group of top-ranking executives from agency holding companies and advertisers including Anheuser-Busch InBev, Dentsu Aegis Network, and Omnicom Media Group.

The companies are part of the client council, a small-knit group of marketing heavyweights from brands and ad agencies who work closely with Facebook on product features and other feedback.

He acknowledged the advertisers’ concerns over its policies on political content moderation, explained the company’s position, tried to assure them that the company was reviewing policies and decision-making processes, and took questions.

Casey Newton:

Very cynical take: ad budgets are shrinking already during the pandemic. Why not get some applause for it?

Seb Joseph, reporting for Digiday in April:

The planning process for marketers is being thrown into disarray. With uncertainty pervading all aspects of business, marketers are forced to pare down their plans and focus only on a month or two head. Annual plans are, for the most part, a relic of a different era.

“In many cases, we’re either in re-planning mode or ring-fencing budgets for certain brands,” said the chief media officer at global [consumer packaged goods] manufacturer.

[…]

In reality, what happens is those brands that are doing moderately well for the business will get fewer media dollars in the second and third quarters of the year to ease the company’s cash flow on the basis that more will be eventually invested in the fourth quarter to ensure those targets are met, said the chief media officer.

Molly Fleming, reporting for MarketingWeek in April:

Unilever is stopping major advertising production and exploring cheaper media in a bid to make savings during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The [fast-moving consumer goods] giant’s chief executive, Alan Jope, told investors on a call today (23 April) that the company would be halting the production of major ad campaigns and “reviewing all spend to be effective”.

It is very hard to know how effective the ADL’s campaign is when companies are reducing their advertising budgets anyway. To be clear, I do not think that the ADL itself is cynically taking advantage of lower spending, but it is very possible that some companies are shamelessly rationalizing their withdrawal.

Alfred Ng, CNet:

On Tuesday, Republican lawmakers introduced the Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act, which calls for an end to “warrant-proof” encryption that’s disrupted criminal investigations. The bill was proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, along with Sens. Tom Cotton and Marsha Blackburn. If passed, the act would require tech companies to help investigators access encrypted data if that assistance would help carry out a warrant.

Lawmakers and the US Justice Department have long battled with tech companies over encryption, which is used to encode data. The Justice Department argues that encryption prevents investigators from getting necessary evidence from suspects’ devices and has requested that tech giants provide “lawful access.”

[…]

The proposed legislation stops short of requiring tech companies to create a backdoor, noting that the attorney general is prohibited from giving specific steps on how tech companies need to comply with lawful access orders.

It may not require a specific implementation, but eradicating meaningful encryption by introducing vulnerabilities is exactly what this bill mandates:

The debate over encryption and lawful access has raged on, unresolved, for years. The Lawful Access to Encrypted Data Act would bring an end to warrant-proof encryption in devices, platforms, and systems.

Pay little attention to the deliberate use of “warrant-proof” to describe end-to-end encryption. All end-to-end encryption is unable to be accessed by anyone other than the users at each endpoint; that is, almost always, a very good thing.

There is simply no way to do what Senate Republicans are envisioning without some form of back door access. But, as writing that into the bill would likely trigger a First Amendment case should it be voted and signed into law, it instead includes some magical thinking:

Directs the Attorney General to create a prize competition to award participants who create a lawful access solution in an encrypted environment, while maximizing privacy and security.

And I would very much like to acquire a house without expending any money.

There are clearly concerns about what nefarious users of end-to-end encryption are hiding, but requiring everyone to bend to that level means that we all become vulnerable. Making it easier for law enforcement to look into the activities of terrible people makes it easier for terrible people to take advantage of everyone else.

Besides, U.S. intelligence took over a year to discover that their most sensitive and powerful hacking tools had been sent outside its ostensibly secure walls. I don’t trust them with having a key to my phone.

Mark Gurman, Bloomberg:

Apple Inc. is preparing to announce a shift to its own main processors in Mac computers, replacing chips from Intel Corp., as early as this month at its annual developer conference, according to people familiar with the plans.

The company is holding WWDC the week of June 22. Unveiling the initiative, codenamed Kalamata, at the event would give outside developers time to adjust before new Macs roll out in 2021, the people said. Since the hardware transition is still months away, the timing of the announcement could change, they added, while asking not to be identified discussing private plans.

This will be the third CPU architecture transition for the Mac, after switching from the Motorola 68k series to PowerPC, and then from PowerPC to Intel. If the first ARM Macs begin shipping to customers early next year, that will mean a fifteen year lifespan for the Intel architecture. That compares to twelve years for PowerPC processors, and just ten for Motorola.

By all accounts, I think, the Intel transition went especially smoothly: the company announced its intentions at WWDC 2005 and, by Macworld 2006 — about seven months later — the company was selling its first two Intel-based products in the form of the iMac and MacBook Pro.

My expectations for this transition are very similar. Because the Bloomberg family of publications carry serious business news, it seems that there is one caveat per Gurman scoop. Even so, it would be shocking to me if the ARM transition were announced at any event except WWDC. If this project becomes public at any point this year, you will hear about it two weeks from now.

The biggest question in the lead-up to the Intel announcement in 2005 was whether existing applications would be supported. Apple’s response was Rosetta — an invisible translation layer that allowed simple PowerPC applications to run on Intel at acceptable speeds. Gurman’s story today builds lightly on his report from April, but does not add any information about this key question.

Update: Jesper:

Even if all of these are handled in the most inclusive way possible, unless there’s some sort of extra bone thrown towards Mac Pro users, who now have seen a platform long-neglected, then ostensibly rebooted, twice, back-to-back, the future for the Mac Pro as the value proposition it currently occupies is murky at best. Forming a Pro team and taking everybody out for a ride of gradually coming to terms with actual people’s actual needs only to decide that they are no longer a priority would be unspeakably stupid. Unless Mac Pros will live on in the current form, there’s more to this, although maybe not revealed immediately at this year’s WWDC.

With USB4 subsuming Thunderbolt 3, it’s not impossible that Mac Pro could just get AMD’s best performing CPUs in them and gain an impressive boost. (Although there’s other Intel technology to worry about, such as the wireless video standard one that powers Sidecar.)

Gus Mueller:

Will Apple release ARM based Macs this year? I hope so, I think the upside is huge. We’ll lose things like VMware and other x86 based applications which will be sad, but if it brings better performance and longer battery life, I’m all for it.

I’m hoping that this is transitioned better than a clean break between Intel and ARM Macs. Even though I don’t plan on buying a new Mac for years, it already sucks when I can’t open some 32-bit app on my MacBook Air running Catalina.

I was reading Jason Snell’s MacOS 10.16 wish list today, and he concludes a section about improving Catalina’s frustrating security restrictions like so:

I don’t need macOS to become less secure. I do think Apple needs to the work to make it easier for users to use their Macs, their apps, and their files without the operating system getting in their way.

Good computing gets out of the way. Apple’s software and hardware, at the best of times, gets out of the way. In my ideal world, Apple’s ARM Mac transition will erect the fewest barriers for users and be as seamless as possible. We shall see.

Brian Barrett, Wired:

According to widespread reports and the web monitoring service Down Detector, prominent iOS apps like TikTok, Spotify, Pinterest, Venmo, and more experienced issues on Wednesday. Many users found that they crashed whenever they tried to open the apps, whether or not they used Facebook to log in. “Please move slower and break fewer things,” wrote one GitHub commenter. “Thank you.”

“Yesterday, a new release of Facebook included a change that triggered crashes in some apps using the Facebook iOS SDK for some users. We identified the issue quickly and resolved it,” Facebook said in a statement.

That change was quite small, given its outsized impact. “It was something like a server value — which was supposed to provide a dictionary of things — was changed to providing a simple YES/NO instead, without warning,” says iOS developer Steven Troughton-Smith. “A change that simple can break an app that isn’t prepared for it.”

This isn’t even close the first time something like this has happened. A few years ago, a developer pulled their code from the NPM package manager; a small utility of theirs was widely used and other developers’ dependence on it broke lots of popular software. This isn’t even the first time this has happened with Facebook’s SDK.

Guilherme Rambo:

Many people rush to blame engineers for these types of problems. “Of course it’s the engineers’ fault: they included the SDK after all, didn’t they?”.

Even though it was technically an engineer who programmed the SDK into their company’s app, those types of decisions are usually top-down. Someone over at marketing decides they want better analytics on their Facebook campaigns, they talk to the product people and the product people just order that from the engineers.

I’m sure there’s a Facebook engineer who was furious with themselves for shipping something that broke a bunch of big apps, but this incident shows how dependent many ostensibly independent apps are on the infrastructure of a few giants. It’s kind of like when a bunch of websites go down because someone kicked the plug out at an Amazon Web Services server farm. It is a reminder that an extraordinary amount of responsibility for modern life is held by very few.

Music industry revenues in 2019 tell a story of something like a comeback. The upward slope of the chart is almost entirely due to streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. In 2010, subscription services represented a little over $212 million in U.S. sales — just three percent of all sales that year. In 2019, paid subscriptions brought in nearly $6 billion dollars in the U.S. and, for the first time, consumed over half of all spending in the country.

In music industry terms, then, 2010 is a lifetime ago. The iTunes Store may have been seven years old by that point, but nearly half of U.S. sales were still delivered in the form of a compact disc — and they were generating only a quarter of the revenue they did ten years prior. Almost nobody was spending over a hundred dollars a year on music, but streaming services today have convinced millions of people to spend ten bucks a month for a seemingly infinite selection.

It is remarkable, isn’t it? But paid streaming services are not the product of record industry brilliance. In fact, the most clear lineage can be traced back to websites that were repeatedly accused of destroying the possibility of artists making a living. Ironically, the world’s greatest libraries of digital music were created by loose groups of thieves and pirates.

And it all started with a pig-themed website — but I will get back to that.

The battle against unauthorized duplication is effectively as old as the ability to make audio recordings, but it predictably ramped up as equipment and techniques became widespread. The “Home Taping Is Killing Music” campaign in the U.K. was a response to a rise in sales of blank cassette tapes in the 1980s, a decade which also saw British music sales grow by 270%. The internet and the widely-used MP3 file format certainly made it easier to facilitate copying, but it wasn’t until the creation of Napster in 1999 that it became easy — user friendly, one might say.

In a story straight out of that era, my first memory of Napster was in the basement of a friend’s house, watching him download a copy of Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” over his cable internet connection. I had dial-up at home, but that did not stop me from trying to acquire Rob Dougan’s “Clubbed to Death” as featured on the soundtrack for the “Matrix”. I did not realize that the song was over seven minutes long; it took over an hour to complete the seven megabyte transfer during which time, I might add, nobody in my household could use the telephone.

Steve Jobs was absolutely right when, during his introduction of iTunes in 2003, he excoriated software like Napster for its unpredictable transfer speed, lack of metadata, and mystery files. Plus, he said, it’s stealing.

Here’s the thing: in order to discuss the extraordinary influence of file sharing on today’s legal music streaming services, we must first acknowledge its murky ethics and dubious legality — so let’s get that out of the way. Studies of prolific music pirates find that they tend to purchase the most music. However, it is still illegal in many jurisdictions to acquire otherwise-paid files without permission, and it would be better for artists if all illicitly-acquired music were instead paid for. Subscription-based streaming services may have fixed the legality problem that Jobs identified, but many of the other issues he highlighted were sorted out well before the launch of Apple Music, or Spotify, or even the iTunes Store.

First: quality. It is a mistake to assume that file sharing is an anarchic collection of individuals ripping music with slapdash quality. In reality, most new music leaks come from a relative handful of individuals connected to Scene topsites. These are servers and message boards maintained by small groups, each of which aims to be the first to produce and distribute what will become a canonical rip of a new album, for example. They have rules and standards for file quality and naming conventions, and any deviation opens the door for a different group to nuke the release and replace it with a compliant copy. The files created by Scene groups trickle down throughout the web and make their way onto public BitTorrent trackers and music blogs — these used to reliably and inexplicably be Blogspot blogs, but many are now a part of the estimated 35% of the web that is powered by WordPress.

Of course, even if you have high-quality copies of each track labelled according to a standard, you still need a reliable and fast way to download them. And the Scene files lack something else, too: this process is very efficient, yes, but it also feels mechanized, without any sort of community spirit. I know I’m writing this about mass copyright infringement, but there is a spark to a group of passionate fans that is missing from mainlining Scene releases.

Enter Oink — or, to use its full name, Oink’s Pink Palace. Launched in 2004, just one year after the iTunes Store, Oink was a BitTorrent tracker that happened to catalogue an impressive collection of music, from decades-old recordings to albums that were not yet released. Or so I’ve heard — a friend of mine promised to invite me around the time that the site was forcibly shut down.

I cannot explain from firsthand knowledge what Oink was like, but former users recall that it was a discerning and exciting place for people who loved music. This was a site built by fans for fans. Trent Reznor was a memberappropriately enough — comparing it to “the world’s greatest record store” and deriding iTunes for “feel[ing] like Sam Goody”.

Oink lasted all of three years, until 2007, when European authorities shut it down. The mourning quickly turned into action, though, and a handful of similar torrent trackers took Oink’s place within hours. No website could truly replace Oink, but its closest spiritual successor was a place called What.cd.

Like Oink, What.cd was an invitation-only BitTorrent tracker with a focus on music. I suppose it’s worth clarifying that What.cd — like Oink and any other torrent tracker — did not actually host any music files. Trackers only keep track of which users have what portion of some file or set of files, and facilitate the transfer of data between users, but they do not actually contain music files.

Despite this, What.cd could accurately be described as the world’s greatest collection of recorded music. Like Oink and Scene rippers, users were required to abide by strict guidelines: only a handful of file formats were allowed, and all tracks were required to be correctly tagged and titled. Rips were only allowed from some sources — CDs and files from online music stores were preferred, and users could also apply to be allowed to upload vinyl rips, so long as they could prove their competence. Users were also required to maintain a good ratio of data uploaded to downloaded; you couldn’t just take any album you wanted without continuing to share it. And album rips that went a long time without anyone sharing them were automatically removed.

It wasn’t just the sheer volume of available albums, but the variety. There were releases from Canadian indie bands unheard-of outside of their hometown’s college radio scene; there were recordings of Nepalese folk singers. There were, of course, copies of every popular record you can imagine, in versions you’ve never heard of. Want the deluxe edition of some record with bonus tracks only sold in Japan? An instrumentals-only version? An original copy of a record only generally available in its remastered form? A specific vinyl pressing? In all likelihood, you would find it in What.cd’s catalogue, with artists’ releases organized just as well as on Discogs.

It’s hard not to see the influence of What.cd and Oink before it on the streaming services of today: of course in the sense of limitlessness and possibility, but also in how easy they are to use. Even the way albums are grouped and organized feels a little inspired by private torrent trackers.

But there remain obvious differences. Most notably, streaming services’ contracts are subject to the unique whims of the record industry, so there are gaps in the catalogue. I’m a huge fan of the Gun Club, but three of their most notable releases — “Miami”, “The Las Vegas Story”, and “Mother Juno” — are not available on Apple Music in Canada, despite the inclusion of cover art for all three in the thumbnail for the “Essentials” playlist.

Locally-stored files from these streaming services, meanwhile, are encumbered by DRM, which means backup copies may not work at some point in the future. That’s understandable for services predicated on users paying a monthly access fee, but it is nevertheless a limitation on their longevity.

Also, streaming services have a limited number of versions of each album: the original release, or perhaps a deluxe edition or a remaster, any of which might be available in clean and explicit variants.1 I’m not sure if it is the responsibility of artists or labels to provide different versions, but the result from my perspective is the same. Songs exclusive to special editions sold in other countries are missing from streaming services, as with vinyl-only and many hidden tracks.

My use of What.cd wained after I subscribed to streaming services — first, Spotify, and then Apple Music. But I liked that it was there for those times when there was a limited-pressing, old, obscure, or otherwise unattainable record. It was one of the few places where anything like this was possible — you knew that you were getting an entirely-correct, fully-labelled, high-quality copy of something that doesn’t exist outside of vaults and archives.

And then, on a day in November 2016, it all came to an end. What.cd dodged the spotlight of several high-profile leaks — ostensibly unpublished J.D. Salinger stories, a Radiohead track that may have been leaked by the band itself, and a copy of Microsoft’s forensics tools, to name a few examples — but the law caught up. At the time of its closure, What.cd had millions of members and tens of millions of songs; it was a massive hub for piracy, but also the greatest music community that has ever existed.

As I wrote earlier, it seems that streaming services learned lessons from private torrent trackers like What.cd. I only wish they would lift more ideas that these trackers pioneered. Over the course of researching for this piece, I came across a eulogy written by Nikhil Sonnad for Quartz after the site was shut down:

“Collages” were one of What’s best features. Users arranged lists of albums on the site into useful categories like “Intro to free jazz” or “Bands with a male and female singer.” These were indispensable sources of musical discovery.

Shared playlists are common on streaming services, but they are song-oriented; they don’t work very well for albums or groups of albums.

There’s an important caveat to this issue of legality, though: The site offered much that is unavailable via legal channels, even to those willing to pay. There were the albums that weren’t available anywhere else.

This is not an exclusive problem with streaming services — no digital music store that I know of has as extensive a catalogue as What.cd did. There are certainly various licensing and contractual issues preventing some artists and albums from appearing in some or all legal online music repositories. But it would be a net benefit to have as many of these works as possible catalogued and made available. There are old, limited-pressing records that surely should have the option of wider availability. One of just fifty total copies of the only Jokers Wild album, with David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, is currently being offered on Discogs for €6,000. There’s no great reason why that record should only be heard by those wealthy enough to pay thousands of Euros.2 Kanye West’s 2016 release “The Life of Pablo” is generally available, but only in its final form — the iterations released in the months prior no longer exist outside of the hard drives of those who hoarded them. More people should have the opportunity hear the way the songs were very publicly tweaked and adjusted.

A limited selection of releases is a relic of the choices of these services and the music providers, but it doesn’t have to be this way: there is virtually unlimited space, and it isn’t impossible to organize multiple releases of the same record in a logical manner. Oink and What.cd demonstrated how to do that.

The reason some releases are not available online is surely down to artist preference, and that is understandable. It’s one of the key differences between What.cd and legitimate services: with the former, the artist didn’t get a choice, for better and for worse. That choice should be respected by streaming platforms.

It’s not the only aspect of private trackers that Apple Music and Spotify will find difficult to replicate. While they may offer lossless streaming in the future, it is not likely that either will offer files unencumbered by DRM, which means that users’ music collections are only theirs so long as they keep paying. And, of course, different streaming services don’t work well together, and it’s not easy to transfer a collection from one to another.

But, most of all, legitimate services will struggle to replace the community that grew naturally within What.cd. It was a place willed into existence by people who truly love music, not something that labels constructed to attract customers, and it was held together by that community. Some digital music services have tried to create similar connections — Apple Music and Spotify users can share their playlists, and iTunes users of the past could do the same with iMixes. Apple, in particular, has tried a little too hard on two separate occasions to turn music into a social network, with little success.

Make no mistake: I understand the legal and ethical ramifications of torrent trackers and file sharing. I would vastly prefer to pay artists — and it’s just the right thing to do. It was merely a perk that What.cd was free, but I do not see that as its defining characteristic. If it were a legitimate streaming service, but was otherwise exactly the same, I would have paid many times the amount of my current Apple Music monthly subscription. That’s how good it was.

I see a lot of the DNA of private torrent trackers in streaming music. It is a welcome development to be able to discover new music without any financial risk — to be able to take the plunge into an artist’s back catalogue, their influences, and those they have influenced in turn, without incurring wildly spiralling costs.

If you’ve arrived at the deep end of this essay confused about the dubious ethics of being influenced by pirates, here’s one small piece of advice you can take away from them that does not require you to part with a piece of your soul: try new things. You can be a picky eater, fussy about the books that you read, and extremely specific about what clothes you wear, but you have nothing to lose by listening to different music. Push yourself to complete entire albums that are from genres you don’t normally listen to. Lose yourself in an artist’s influences. Challenge yourself to listen to an artist’s discography, in its entirety, from their first record to their most recent. As with What.cd, it costs you nothing extra to listen to something new instead of something familiar. The only difference is that, now, the artist gets paid.


  1. One thing I desperately want from Apple Music is a toggle to allow me to only see explicit versions. Profanity is far less insulting to me than hearing gaps where words are supposed to be. ↥︎

  2. One of What.cd’s more interesting features was its request system. Users could pool bandwidth credits to reward the first person to upload a release, as a sort of bounty system. I recall the Jokers Wild request having one of the highest bounties; it was never filled. ↥︎

The thing we know for certain about bullshit is that, no matter how hard we try, it is virtually impossible to be countered, eradicated, minimized, or undone. Harry Frankfurt described this phenomenon in “On Bullshit”:

[…] Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.

Alberto Brandolini summarized the problem in 2013:

The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.

This rule remains true for the bullshit web — the marketing cruft, bloated advertising, tracking mechanisms, and Google’s unnecessary and toxic Accelerated Mobile Pages project that have come to dominate the web. Users have tried to fight back by adopting ad blockers and switching to web browsers that are more privacy focused. But bullshit is stronger than that. It cannot be contained by browsers or the mere will of users’ requests. The response by its purveyors illustrates how thoroughly bullshit resists control.

You’re probably familiar with ad blocker blockers like the one from Admiral, which calls itself a “visitor relationship management company” and has a website that contains an SVG animation which uses over 100% of one of my iMac’s CPU cores. Another popular service is Blockthrough. In its 2020 ad blocking report, it claims to be the “most popular dedicated provider of ad recovery” using an “Acceptable Ads” whitelist. Most ad blocker blockers are only a little irritating. They might show a notice guilting you into disable your ad blocker; some will prevent the article from loading until the ad blocker is disabled, though many will offer an option to proceed anyway.

But some go much further, like Instart’s AppShield. They call their product an “Ad Integrity” feature, which works by encrypting most of the media on each page and requiring the company’s scripts to decode the page. If those scripts are blocked, so, too, will be everything from pictures to links. If you visited a CBS Interactive property like CNet or Metacritic at some point over the past few years with an ad or tracking blocker turned on, you may have noticed that many of the pages fail to fully load. Instart went to great lengths in an attempt to avoid detection of AppShield, from obfuscating code to monitoring whether the developer console is open.

It’s not just anti-ad blockers that are pervasive; a user’s attempts to withdraw from all sorts of the web’s bullshit are countered at every turn. Providers of push notification services for website recognized that users could simply opt out of receiving requests to enable notifications on all websites, so they switched to JavaScript-based prompts that cannot be universally dismissed. Analytics providers are promoting tactics for “greater reliability” and creating workarounds for anti-tracking policies.

Violations of users’ intent are nothing new. Ad tech companies like Criteo and AdRoll created workarounds specifically to track Safari users without their explicit consent; Google was penalized by the FTC for ignoring Safari users’ preferences. These techniques are arrogant and unethical. If a user has set their browser preferences to make tracking difficult or impossible, that decision should be respected. Likewise, if a browser has preferences that are not favourable to tracking, it is not the prerogative of ad tech companies to ignore or work around those defaults. Just because browsers have historically been receptive by default to all sorts of privacy hostile technologies, it does not mean that those defaults are more correct.

A lack of user control is a worrisome theme amongst web bullshit purveyors. Think of all of the video files you have inadvertently streamed because they were included on a webpage that prioritized flashiness. Think of all of the times you have been stymied while trying to load some ostensibly simple page over a poor connection because of a wasteful use of resources.

This arrogance reaches its zenith when we test the limits of whether the integrity of a webpage is dependent on the entirety of its components. For instance, is it fair for a webpage to use a visitor’s CPU power to generate cryptocurrency? A recent analysis of the million most popular websites found that around a third of websites which use WebAssembly are running cryptocurrency miners; it was the most popular use of WebAssembly among the websites surveyed. The survey found that WebAssembly was being used in any capacity by only around 1,600 popular websites.

This stuff is like malware — except malware is usually relegated to the confines of software sourced in dubious means. Cryptocurrency miners, on the other hand, can be found on name brand websites. Surely, not all instances of mining scripts were deliberate, instead being included on a webpage through an ad network or similar means.

Still, these scripts are out there. When I started writing JavaScript twenty years ago, I used it to swap button styling or create dropdown menus. Now, it is somehow possible for a news article to have buried in its ad tech package a few-kilobyte obfuscated JavaScript file that will maximize CPU cycles, destroy battery life, and spool up your computer’s fans as it generates cryptocurrency in the background. One could argue that this is just another revenue source for a website, but it isn’t that simple. It’s an insidious and hostile way of usurping power and control.

If it were up to me, cryptocurrency mining would not be a capability offered by any web technology. But there is no way to remove just one CPU-sucking application from a web technology that enables many CPU-sucking applications. If WebAssembly were universally curtailed or dropped entirely, we would no longer face the scourge of cryptocurrency miners in browsers, but we might also lose web applications that require higher performance programming languages. And, notably, the use of those languages has broadened beyond the previous confines of the World Wide Web. It’s not just crappy Electron apps — which is to say all Electron apps. Web technologies are everywhere in otherwise native apps, from Adobe’s Creative Cloud to plenty of Apple’s, and there are plenty of reasons why.

But it also means that any website you visit is brimming with capabilities it almost certainly does not need, but can be used in ways that users have not consented to — and users have little control or knowledge. You can disable JavaScript entirely, but that makes some websites unusable. In some browsers — though not Safari — you can disable JavaScript on a per-website basis, but that’s a big switch to throw that simultaneously stops desktop-class code and also doesn’t allow the site to display a photo in an overlay.1

The bullshit web is not going away — on the contrary, it has leeched into the desktop, threatening native applications, and it is this very growth that is allowing websites to become laden with toxic technical waste. One of the reasons the bullshit web is able to exist at all is because the web is increasingly a universal operating system. We build websites as applications, which encourages standards bodies to add web app features to programming languages, which means even more apps get built with web languages.

It is as much a tasteless exercise as it is progress, and we should not accept its creeping intrusion. You can still separate a great Mac app from a poor one, but there is a new basement and it is found in apps which are partially or exclusively websites. It is foolish to run several instances of Chromium, and it is profoundly disrespectful for everything from our file syncing app to a videoconferencing app to be hundreds of megabytes each when their native-built equivalents are in the tens of megabytes. It is bizarre and poetic that the bullshit web has expanded to such an extent that we now construct it using a website disguised as an app.

All of this is to say that many of the surface-level indicators of the bullshit web may go away. Like popup ads and Flash, the worst qualities today’s web will eventually run their course. I look forward to a time when I no longer open an AMP URL, change it to a real webpage address, then am required to set my cookie preferences, state that I do not wish to receive push notifications, pause an autoplaying video, close a form asking for my email address, and hide a half-page advertisement only to read a single article. A future without all of that trash would undeniably be a very good thing.

Under the hood, though, the bullshit web will be more insidious and all-encompassing. Users will have less control over what is allowed to execute on their computer while unscrupulous practices are normalized. The worst privacy offences may be curtailed by regulation enforcing strong rights, but the worst technical offences will be hard to stop so long as websites are apps and apps are websites.


  1. Yes, I know there are non-JavaScript implementations of photo lightbox scripts; please do not write. ↥︎

Jagadeesh Chandraiah of SophosLabs:

Since we began writing last year about the consumer-hostile trend in mobile apps that we’re calling fleeceware, the number of apps we’ve discovered that engage in this practice have only increased. In the first two articles we wrote about fleeceware, we covered various Android apps in the official Play Store charging very high subscriptions for apps of questionable quality or utility.

In this latest round of research, we found more than 30 apps we consider fleeceware in Apple’s official App Store.

Many of these apps charge subscription rates like $30 per month or $9 per week after a 3- or 7-day trial period. If someone kept paying that subscription for a year, it would cost $360 or $468, respectively. For an app.

Like we have seen before, most of these fleeceware apps are image editors, horoscope/fortune telling/palm readers, QR code/barcode scanners, and face filter apps for adding silly tweaks to selfies.

I downloaded a horoscope app to see what this world of fleeceware was like. Turns out it’s as bad as you might think. Immediately after launching the app, I was prompted to enter my Apple ID password. I tapped “cancel” and the app proceeded to run. I entered a name, a birthday, and a time of birth — for some reason — after which it scanned my “palm”. Then it asked for my Apple ID password again, so I tapped “cancel” again, and then it said that it could show me my horoscope results with a three-day free trial and, after that, would charge me $13.49 per week.

How could anyone pass up a deal like that?

Tapping the subscription button showed me the standard in-app purchase sheet, so I confirmed the purchase with Face ID. Then it prompted me for my Apple ID’s password again, so I tapped the cancel button again, after which I was shown a SwiftyStoreKit error. I tried the in-app purchase again and, with trepidation, entered my Apple ID’s password at the prompt. My trial was unlocked; I could at long last know what the stars and my palm have in store for me, or whatever.

I learned a few things while running this experiment:

  1. One advantage of requiring apps to use Apple’s own in-app purchases API is that all subscriptions are tied to an Apple ID and known at the system level. That means that Apple could theoretically solve the problem of erroneous subscriptions by notifying consumers when a free trial is expiring.

  2. Even though I ostensibly have a free trial for three days, the fine print suggests that I must cancel by day two or I will be charged for the first week.

  3. The system Apple ID password prompt still looks like a phishing scam. My understanding is that a developer could reproduce the overall look and feel of this dialog, but would be unable to read my Apple ID’s email address and the prompt would not persist after switching apps. So, while I am fairly confident that my password is not in the hands of some criminal enterprise, I will be changing it.

    This dialog is in desperate need of a redesign that clearly indicates that it is something that is generated by the system rather than an app. Perhaps the app could be shaded and zoom out slightly, as with the share sheet, and a sheet similar to the in-app purchase confirmation could prompt for the password. I’m not sure if this is the right solution, but it would more clearly indicate that this is a system-level action and that it’s safe to enter your password.

Ever since subscriptions have been opened up to all types of app, they have become a scammer’s best friend. When coupled with a free trial, there’s a low barrier to onboarding users and generating recurring revenue. Apps that offer subscriptions should be more closely scrutinized, particularly when the app is for jokey entertainment purposes or when there are a large number of negative reviews.

Update: Riley Tomasek pointed out that new rules are being imposed by Visa (PDF) regarding recurring payments. The requirements are set to go into effect on April 18, and seem to apply to vendors. I’m not sure there will be many changes in practice to App Store subscriptions, but Visa is now mandating that a reminder notification must be sent at least seven days in advance of a free trial ending — potentially meaning that free trials will need to be at least a week long.

Nick Statt, the Verge:

Amazon’s Prime Video iOS and Apple TV apps now let customers make in-app purchases, including renting and buying films and TV shows. The change marks a huge shift in Amazon’s approach to the App Store, which mandates a 30 percent cut on all in-app purchases. Prior to the change, Amazon would not allow you to rent or buy content on the Prime Video app, instead, directing users to a web browser to avoid the App Store fee.

Now, when users log in to the Prime Video app, there should be a message reading, “Browse, rent, or buy new release movies, popular TV shows, and more — now within the app.” (Big thanks to George Watson, who tipped us off to this change.)

Ryan Jones:

Amazon Prime Video now avoids Apple’s payment system and ostensibly the 30% fee. You pay directly to Amazon.

Change was made server-side without an app update. This is huge news either way.

Guilherme Rambo:

The Prime Video app has a special “com.apple.storekit.request-data” entitlement. This reminds me of the “requestData” property on SKPayment, which has been “Reserved for future use” for a long time. Hmmmm…

Rambo isn’t kidding — that property has been around since iOS 3.

Apple’s statement, as posted by Benjamin Mayo:

Apple has an established program for premium subscription video entertainment providers to offer a variety of customer benefits — including integration with the Apple TV app, AirPlay 2 support, tvOS apps, universal search, Siri support and, where applicable, single or zero sign-on. On qualifying premium video entertainment apps such as Prime Video, Altice One and Canal+, customers have the option to buy or rent movies and TV shows using the payment method tied to their existing video subscription.

This is bizarre, undocumented, and, as far as I can figure out, has never previously been acknowledged.

Apple’s statement does not seem to fully reflect exactly what is going on here. The features described as being part of an “established program for premium subscription video entertainment providers” — a phrase that, I think, needs more words — do not appear to be unique to apps that are allowed to bypass Apple’s in-app purchase mechanism. The Netflix app on tvOS, for instance, is part of universal search; CBC’s Gem app integrates with the Apple TV app but uses standard iOS in-app purchases, not its own. So those “benefits” are not unique to the listed apps: Prime Video, Altice One, and Canal+.

What does appear to be entirely unique to those apps is that they are allowed to bypass Apple’s in-app purchase regime, contrary to the App Store rules:

If you want to unlock features or functionality within your app, (by way of example: subscriptions, in-game currencies, game levels, access to premium content, or unlocking a full version), you must use in-app purchase. Apps may not use their own mechanisms to unlock content or functionality, such as license keys, augmented reality markers, QR codes, etc. Apps and their metadata may not include buttons, external links, or other calls to action that direct customers to purchasing mechanisms other than in-app purchase.

Why is Amazon Prime Video allowed to use a non-Apple payment method for its movie purchases and rentals, but not for subscriptions? Why is this entirely undocumented? Why did it take until today to enable this for Amazon Prime Video, and not something that has been available all along for the app?

Most of all, why has this notoriously immutable App Store rule turned out to be something that can be bypassed, if only by an invitation offered to a few apps?

Update: Apple provided a slightly different statement to the Verge stating that this new policy only applies to individual purchases, not subscriptions. No clarification was provided on how a developer would go about joining this program, though it seems like the “benefits” that Apple described in its statement — AirPlay support, universal search, and the like — are something a developer has to agree to integrate in order to get this special entitlement.

Karl Bode, writing Thursday for Vice:

For years, US broadband providers have taken advantage of a lack of US competition by imposing arbitrary and expensive broadband usage caps and “overage fees.” With the country facing a massive surge in videoconferencing and home learning thanks to the coronavirus epidemic, experts say it’s time for broadband providers to suspend these costly, unnecessary restrictions.

AT&T was the first major U.S. ISP to commit to suspending data caps, with Comcast following on Friday. The FCC also launched an initiative Friday, spearheaded by Chairman Ajit Pai, to “keep Americans connected”. Tony Romm, Washington Post:

As part of the so-called “Keep Americans Connected Pledge,” nationwide providers including CenturyLink and T-Mobile and more regional telecom companies across the country agreed for the next 60 days that they would not terminate service or assess late fees on customers and businesses that fall behind on their bills. They also agreed to open wi-fi hot spots to any American who needs them.

Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica:

Led by Pai, the Republican-majority Federal Communications Commission gave up its authority to restrict data caps and other anti-consumer practices in late 2017 when it repealed net neutrality rules and deregulated the broadband industry. That vote also eliminated requirements for ISPs to be more transparent with customers about hidden fees and the consequences of exceeding data caps, and it lifted a ban on “unjust or unreasonable discrimination” in broadband rates, practices, and services. Stripping away these regulations made it harder for the FCC to guarantee affordable broadband.

Concerns like these apply to no other utility, and they are entirely valid. In 2018, Verizon throttled firefighters’ ostensibly unlimited plans. It’s good that ISPs are not taking advantage of this crisis, too, but the very possibility that they could is surely an indication that broadband infrastructure is broken.

Here in Canada, Telus is waiving overage fees; Shaw has lifted data caps and opened its WiFi hotspot system to non-subscribers. However, Shaw previously announced that its bullshit biannual rate increase would take effect on June 1, and there’s no word yet on whether it has been postponed.

Update: Margaret Harding McGill, Axios:

The virus crisis is offering vivid case studies of real-world, everyday harms that result from inequality between those who have access to and can afford high-speed internet, and those who cannot.

[…]

The FCC estimates 21 million Americans don’t have access to high-speed broadband, though that number could be higher due to problems with data collection.

That’s a huge number of people — roughly equivalent to the entire population of Australia — who lack broadband. Working from home isn’t always an option even with broadband, due to different employment requirements, but those without broadband may find it harder to access support and information.

Speaking of the T-Mobile and Sprint merger, Eriq Gardner of the Hollywood Reporter wrote a profile of Makan Delrahim:

In addition, the Antitrust Division has in recent months raised eyebrows about politicization of competition law. During the trial of a multistate challenge to the proposed T-Mobile/Sprint merger, which federal regulators approved, text messages emerged that showed Delrahim laboring behind the scenes during the government’s review last summer to save a deal that would shrink competitors in the wireless arena, helping to arrange the sale of the two companies’ mobile spectrum to a third party, Dish Network, and offering its chairman, Charlie Ergen, advice on how to lobby the FCC and lawmakers. “Why Is the Justice Department Treating T-Mobile Like a Client?” asked a New York Times editorial in December. (On Tuesday, a judge rejected the states’ antitrust challenge and approved T-Mobile’s Sprint acquisition.)

Delrahim is notable for leading the antitrust investigations of large tech companies, disputing the AT&T and Time Warner merger, and his opposition to the Paramount Consent Decree. He has a bizarre view of antitrust law: big tech companies are scary to him, but ISPs and entertainment conglomerates — which are increasingly the same thing — are not. Oh, except for AT&T and Time Warner, which he disputed for ostensibly good reasons, only to lose that case and find that the newly-merged AT&T and Time Warner conglomerate is doing exactly what it said it wouldn’t.

Today is the tenth anniversary of the day that Steve Jobs took the stage at Yerba Buena and introduced the world to the iPad. It went on sale in April 2010 and ended up being Apple’s fastest selling new product ever.

Plenty of writers have been acknowledging this anniversary today — Tom Warren at the Verge and John Voorhees at MacStories both wrote articles worth your time; Ryan Houlihan of Input interviewed Imran Chaudhri and Bethany Bongiorno, both of whom worked on the original iPad.

But no article has hit the mark for me quite like John Gruber’s:

The iPad at 10 is, to me, a grave disappointment. Not because it’s “bad”, because it’s not bad — it’s great even — but because great though it is in so many ways, overall it has fallen so far short of the grand potential it showed on day one. To reach that potential, Apple needs to recognize they have made profound conceptual mistakes in the iPad user interface, mistakes that need to be scrapped and replaced, not polished and refined. I worry that iPadOS 13 suggests the opposite — that Apple is steering the iPad full speed ahead down a blind alley.

I agree with Gruber’s criticism of the iPad’s multitasking model in design terms, but I find myself increasingly frustrated by the myriad ways using an iPad makes simple tasks needlessly difficult — difficulties that should not remain ten years on.

There are small elements of friction, like how the iPad does not have paged memory, so the system tends to boot applications from memory when it runs out. There are developer limitations that make it difficult for apps to interact with each other. There are still system features that occupy the entire display. Put all of these issues together and it makes a chore of something as ostensibly simple as writing.

Writing this post, for example, involved tapping a bookmarklet and saving the title and link URL as a draft. I rewrote the title, selected it — with some difficulty, as text selection on the iPad remains a mysterious combination of swipes and taps — then tapped the “Share” option and passed the selection to the Text Case app. The title case-converted text was placed on my clipboard with a tap, as there’s no way for the app to simply replace the selected text inline, and then another incantation was performed to select the title again and replace it with the text on the clipboard. As I typed out the body text, words were inexplicably selected and the cursor was moved around. Sometimes, after holding the delete key to remove a few words, the keyboard would be in uppercase mode. To get all of the links for the second paragraph, I had to open a few Safari tabs. I received a message notification midway through this and needed to open Notification Centre to read it, which took over the whole display for a handful of balloons half its width. I tapped to reply, then switched back to Safari. It had apparently been dumped from memory in the background, perhaps because I opened the photo picker in Messages, so the tabs I opened before had to reload.

Each of these problems is tiny but irksome. Combined, it makes the iPad a simplistic multitasking environment presented with inexplicable complexity.

No device or product I own has inspired such a maddening blend of adoration and frustration for me as the iPad, and certainly not for as long in so many of the same ways.

Andy Baio:

Late last week, people on Twitter started noticing sponsored tweets promoting the island of Eroda, linking to a website advertising its picturesque views, marine life, and seaside cuisine.

The only catch? Eroda doesn’t exist. It’s completely fictional. Musician/photographer Austin Strifler was the first to notice, bringing attention to it in a long thread that unraveled over the last few days.

The creators of the Visit Eroda campaign covered their tracks well. According to Baio, they didn’t leave any identifying information in image metadata, domain records, or in the site’s markup.

Ryan J:

I verified a connection between @visiteroda and @Harry_Styles. The Eroda page is using a [Facebook] pixel installed on http://hstyles.co.uk. You can only track websites you have control of. They are related.

I’m not arguing that a promotional campaign for Harry Styles’ new record should be taken as a serious privacy violation; I am, in fact, quite sober. But I think there’s a lesson in the campaign’s difficulty for identifying data to be completely disassociated. A need for behaviourally-targeted advertising is what ultimately made it easy to reassociate the anonymous website.

See also: A 2011 article by Andy Baio in which he describes how he was able to figure out the author of an ostensibly anonymous blog because of a shared Google Analytics account.