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Other Technology News

  • Fri, 16 Apr 2021 17:59:32 +0000

    Automakers Are Going All In on Electric Pickups. Will Anyone Buy Them?

    Mitchell Yow’s pickup truck has decals advertising that the vehicle is all-electric, but sometimes people aren’t convinced. “That’s not really electric, is it?” bystanders will ask, often approaching him in grocery store parking lots in Surprise, Arizona, where Yow and his company Torque Trends, which makes gearboxes for converting gasoline vehicles to electric, swapped out the hulking Ford F-150’s V8 engine for an electric motor. The result doesn’t look like any zero-emissions vehicle most people have seen. “Even though they see it, and they read it, they don’t believe it,” says Yow. “They’ve never heard of an electric truck.”

    That’s likely about to change. As automakers’ investments in electric vehicles (EVs) ramp up, pickup trucks are fast becoming a new front in the electrification wars. Manufacturers from Tesla to Ford are unveiling electric pickups—just last week, General Motors said it will deliver a 400-mile-range electric Chevrolet Silverado—though they have yet to hit the market. For automakers, the potential rewards are huge, as pickups accounted for one in five new cars sold in the U.S. in 2020. Environmental gains could be big, too. When it comes to typical highway or city driving, pickups are disproportionately wasteful; even the newest models have dismal fuel economy ratings. Getting pickup drivers to switch to more efficient options is essential if the U.S. is to decarbonize its economy, and electric pickups could also help automakers reach fleetwide fuel efficiency targets.

    But for now, the possibility of mass conversion to electric pickups seems tenuous at best. Most EV buyers so far have been wealthy coastal dwellers, while pickup buyers tend to live in different areas of the country, often with different values and needs. “We’ve been thinking about it for a long time,” says Autotrader analyst Michelle Krebs. “We’re always saying internally, ‘Do you think anybody really wants an EV pickup truck?'”

    Mitchell Yow’s fully electric Ford F-150

    For one thing, there might not be a huge overlap between people currently interested in EVs and those who buy pickups. Historically, EV adoption has been the highest in liberal-leaning coastal states, especially California and Washington. States where pickups rule the roads, like Texas, Wyoming, and North Dakota, tend toward big skies and conservative values. On an individual basis, survey data have shown EV and hybrid buyers tend to lean Democratic, while pickup drivers lean Republican. One Oct. 2020 Strategic Vision survey showed that more than 50% of heavy-duty pickup buyers identify as Republicans, while less than 10% say they are Democrats. Meanwhile, Democrats bought 36% of midsize hybrids and EVs, compared to less than 20% bought by Republicans. Electric pickups’ potential is further limited by the fact that many states with high numbers of pickup drivers tend to have the worst EV charging infrastructure.

    There’s also a deeper issue with some of the upcoming vehicles themselves. Auto industry analysts say that many of the new electric pickup trucks set to hit the market, like the Tesla Cybertruck, the Rivian R1T, and GM Hummer EV, appear to be aimed more at wealthy “lifestyle” buyers (coders who go rock climbing on the weekends, for instance) than “traditional” pickup truck buyers (who are more likely to use them for, say, pulling equipment around a farm or hauling building materials). That might mean that, in the near term, electric pickups might cut into sales of luxury EVs like the Tesla Model S rather than reduce demand for internal-combustion pickups.

    “There is a bit of cannibalization within the [EV] segment; people will shift to whatever the cool thing is to have at the time, sadly,” says Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at Edmunds. “You may not necessarily be getting a lot of new buyers.”

    But at least some longtime pickup owners are looking to switch. Matt Gehrisch, a 43-year-old information security consultant from northern-central Ohio—and a proud owner of a 2004 Chevy pickup—is excited about the upcoming EV options. “They’re going to have the kind of torque and performance that a diesel has, but without the diesel maintenance costs,” he says. “It’s gonna be really cool.” With no major EV pickups on the market, it remains to be seen how many drivers are similarly excited to switch. For now, it’s rare to find someone carting around building materials on electric power—though some are so impatient for zero-emissions pickups that they’re taking matters into their own hands. Simone Giertz, a YouTuber and inventor, went to the trouble of cutting up a Tesla Model 3 to make her own handicraft electric pickup. “I use her everyday, but she’s not waterproof, the trim is a little bit off, and the tailgate doesn’t work,” Giertz says. “She’s a little bit annoying to drive because it’s like waving a giant flag of ‘Look at me.'”

    Simone Giertz’s heavily modified Tesla Model 3

    Automakers like Ford—maker of the F-150, the best-selling pickup in the U.S.—believe other pickup fans are ready to go electric, too; it’s making a big bet on an electric F-150 expected out in 2022. “[Pickup drivers] have to rely on these products for their businesses and the tasks they’re doing, and so they’re very cautious about adopting a new technology, unless they know it is reliable,” says Ford Electric Vehicles general manager Darren Palmer. “They are naturally more cautious, because they need to rely on [their trucks] so much, but they are more open to it than we might have imagined.”

    Pickup drivers have adapted to changes before. Some were skeptical, for instance, when Ford released an F-150 with a lighter, mainly aluminum body and smaller engine in 2014, but the change didn’t put a dent in sales. Ford’s new hybrid F-150 Powerboost, meanwhile, has been a hit. In the long run, converting pickup drivers to electric—and getting low-economy older models off the roads—may be less a matter of lifestyle branding or flashy styling than of offering reliable, cost-effective vehicles capable of meeting pickup drivers’ needs. “At the end of the day, I don’t need all the luxury,” says Gehrisch. “I just need a good, solid, reliable truck.”

  • Tue, 13 Apr 2021 16:38:32 +0000

    Your iPhone’s Next Software Update Aims to Foil App Trackers and Digital Advertisers. Here’s How

    Apple’s next major software update for the iPhone is set to give users more control of their privacy—and could significantly alter the way advertisers and app developers do business.

    iOS 14.5, already in the hands of beta testers and scheduled for release later this month, puts serious restrictions on the information third parties can gather from iPhone and iPad users without their permission. That data, usually used for ad tracking and targeting, is highly sought after by companies. Which is why the new privacy features are infuriating advertisers, app makers and some of Apple’s biggest Silicon Valley neighbors. Facebook has pushed back publicly against the new protections. While Google, which also uses the data in myriad ways, has resorted to less effective ad tracking measures, and avoiding triggering Apple’s new anti-tracking features.

    What do Apple’s new app tracking transparency (ATT) rules do, exactly? For one, they require app developers to submit information about the user data they collect, how it will be used and whether developers will further track users and send them targeted ads. As part of the new framework, each app’s privacy policy will be prominently displayed on its App Store page, allowing users to see what data the app is using to track them, what it knows about them and whether that data is being sold to other businesses. Of course, data you willingly give over within apps, like searches and like, is still fair game and can be used without your express permission.

    Apple leadership, including CEO Tim Cook and SVP of software engineering Craig Federighi, have spoken publicly about the need for increased consumer control over personal data. “At a moment of rampant disinformation and conspiracy theories juiced by algorithms, we can no longer turn a blind eye to a theory of technology that says all engagement is good engagement — the longer the better — and all with the goal of collecting as much data as possible,” said Cook at a virtual privacy-focused conference in January. The company’s even gone so far as to create a basic guide on how data collected by apps without consumers’ knowledge is used to target people in invasive ways.

    Privacy advocates like nonprofit organization the Electronic Frontier Foundation say Apple’s moves are a win for consumer data protection. “The system reinforces itself by lulling consumers into the myth that it’s just ads,” says EFF’s Gennie Gebhart. “When we say it’s just ads, they are the visible tip of the iceberg of this sprawling data sharing network. It does not work in any user’s best interest.”

    The App Store information is displayed in an easy-to-read label that shows which apps are collecting what data–as long as they’re being transparent, of course. Developers can make their case to users in the app before asking for permission to access private data, but “…apps must respect the user’s permission settings and not attempt to manipulate, trick, or force people to consent to unnecessary data access,” according to Apple’s guidelines.

    Users won’t see much of a change otherwise. Developers and ad-based companies, however, can expect their fortunes to fall by more than a little. Companies are expecting Apple’s tightened privacy policy to make it harder for targeted ads to reach their… well, target. “Apple’s ATT changes will reduce visibility into key metrics that show how ads drive conversions (like app installs and sales) and will affect how advertisers value and bid on ad impressions,” said Google in a blog post describing changes it’s making to its ad tracking. “As such, app publishers may see a significant impact to their Google ad revenue on iOS after Apple’s ATT policies take effect.”

    Facebook said it would display a prompt suggesting users enable tracking to see better personalized ads, but that the decision would have a disproportionate impact on small businesses depending on targeted advertising, a move the company says only benefits larger advertisers, including companies like Apple itself. Whether that will be enough to entice users to share intimate details like location data is an open question for the social network giant. Currently, app developers must disclose the information they’re tracking, which has led to some ridiculously long disclosure lists from apps like Facebook and WhatsApp.

    With the changes, consumers become more aware of which companies want access to their data, while Apple can claim it’s protecting users from overreaching companies. The protections also help Apple to differentiate iOS from Google’s Android platform, especially for prospective buyers worried about privacy intrusions. A recent Bloomberg report detailed Google’s early efforts to create its own version of anti-tracking that would likely not require an opt-in prompt, but details are scarce.

    Another worry for consumers: The data companies collect is sometimes sold under the table. The $200 billion data broker industry is lucrative, and has many unlikely bedfellows. Operators of the Weather Channel app settled a lawsuit last summer that alleged the app misled millions of customers into sharing location data. The suit also alleged that the operators sold the information to third parties without consumers’ consent. A recent Motherboard report detailed how the U.S. military’s counterterrorism branch used location data from multiple apps, including dating and prayer apps, to track users illegally.

    While companies like Twitter and Snapchat have fallen in line with Apple’s new guidelines, Facebook has responded rather vociferously. The company took out full page ads in several newspapers to discuss the harm it says Apple’s ad blocking tech will have on small businesses. It also started the Good Ideas Deserve To Be Found initiative, which “highlights how personalized ads are an important way people discover small businesses on Facebook and Instagram.”

    Some advertisers see opportunity in the shifting advertising landscape. To James Nord, CEO of influencer marketing agency Fohr, the changes present a chance to make brand ambassadors more important to businesses’ ad campaigns, as larger campaigns done through platforms like Facebook or Google become less effective on iOS devices. Fohr connects brands to influencers in relevant audiences, and helps them manage metrics like views, likes, and overall “effectiveness” at pushing a product.

    Restricting apps’ access to user data makes targeted advertising more difficult, less effective and more expensive, which means an influencer’s predominantly “opt-in” audience of followers becomes all the more valuable. “We know what their interests are,” says Nord. To brands, that means marketing budgets might see a shift from Facebook’s pockets to a smaller, more focused group of influencers. To Nord, Apple’s established position as a hardware manufacturer allows it to use its privacy changes to its advantage–as its own marketing scheme to lure people away from competitors who make money by following your online habits.

    For its part, Google is sidestepping the new change as much as possible, opting to avoid the app tracking transparency pop-up by opting to not use that Apple’s IDFA, a tool advertisers use to track users between apps, for advertising purposes. by avoiding Apple’s ad-tracking tool entirely. “When Apple’s policy goes into effect, we will no longer use information (such as IDFA) that falls under ATT for the handful of our iOS apps that currently use it for advertising purposes,” said the company in a blog post. “As such, we will not show the ATT prompt on those apps, in line with Apple’s guidance.” While the company is offering guidelines to prepare for iOS 14.5’s release, it also suggested advertisers should be ready for a “significant decrease in reach,” when it comes to advertising on iOS devices.

  • Tue, 06 Apr 2021 14:24:04 +0000

    How Google’s Big Supreme Court Victory Could Change Software Forever

    The U.S. Supreme Court sided with Google this week in a major decision that some legal experts are hailing as a victory for programmers and consumers. The Court ruled that Google did not violate copyright law when it included parts of Oracle’s Java programming code in its Android operating system—ending a decade-long multibillion dollar legal battle.

    The Court’s ruling in Google LLC v. Oracle America, Inc. upheld long standing industry practices that have furthered development of software that’s compatible with other programs, legal experts tell TIME. The ruling means copyright holders for software “can’t maintain a monopoly over critical interface aspects,” argues Jeanne Fromer, a professor of copyright law at New York University School of Law—and those aspects can be used by both users and programmers to more easily switch between products.

    “This is huge for a vibrant tech industry to continue innovating,” says Fromer. “In fact, that’s what the tech industry has long been built on… if this [practice] had been forbidden, there’s so many things in fundamental aspects of software that we wouldn’t have today.”

    The Court did not rule on the broader issue of whether the code in question could be copyrighted. Rather, Breyer wrote, “The Court assumes for argument’s sake that the copied lines can be copyrighted,” so it could focus on whether Google acted illegally. While a ruling on the copyright status “would have provided a clearer safe harbor for software developers,” writes Peter Menell, a professor of copyright law at University of California at Berkeley School of Law who filed an amicus brief in support of Google, it still “provides some assurance” for people looking to use a similar approach to develop products.

    The case stretches back to 2005, when Google included roughly 11,500 lines of code from an Application Programming Interface (API)—a tool that allows applications to more easily communicate by drawing on pre-written instructions—in its mobile Android operating system. The Java API had been developed by Sun Microsystems, which Oracle purchased in 2010.

    Oracle filed its lawsuit against Google later that year, seeking as much as $9 billion in damages. Google contended that its use of the code was covered by the doctrine of “fair use”—which allows copyrighted material to be used by other parties without permission if it’s within the public’s interest, such as when the use is “transformative” or limited. A federal circuit court ruled in Oracle’s favor in 2018, deciding that Google’s use of the technology was illegal.

    The Supreme Court overturned that decision on Monday in a 6-2 decision, with Justice Stephen Breyer writing the majority opinion and Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Samuel Alito dissenting. (Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate as she was not yet on the court when the case was argued in October.)

    In his opinion, Breyer wrote that Google’s use of the Java API, “which included only those lines of code that were needed to allow programmers to put their accrued talents to work in a new and transformative program,” was protected under fair use. Java was one of the most widely used programming languages at the time, and Google copied the lines to “allow the millions of programmers familiar with the Java programming language to work with its new Android platform,” he continued.

    The 11,500 lines was only about 0.4% of the total Java code—which comprises around 2.86 million lines in total, he continued. And while Java was originally most used on desktop and laptop computers, Google used the API to make a whole new—and eventually widely popular—mobile operating system, which Breyer argued was “transformative.”

    In his dissent, Thomas criticized the Court for avoiding what he viewed as the larger question.

    “The Court wrongly sidesteps the principal question that we were asked to answer: Is declaring code protected by copyright? I would hold that it is,” he wrote. “The majority purports to save for another day the question whether declaring code is copyrightable. The only apparent reason for doing so is because the majority cannot square its fundamentally flawed fair-use analysis with a finding that declaring code is copyrightable.

    “By copying Oracle’s work, Google decimated Oracle’s market and created a mobile operating system now in over 2.5 billion actively used devices,” Thomas continued. “If these effects on Oracle’s potential market favor Google, something is very wrong with our fair use analysis.”

    In response to Monday’s ruling, Dorian Daley, the executive vice president and general counsel of Oracle, said in a statement that the “Google platform just got bigger and market power greater—the barriers to entry higher and the ability to compete lower.”

    “They stole Java and spent a decade litigating as only a monopolist can,” he continued. “This behavior is exactly why regulatory authorities around the world and in the United States are examining Google’s business practices.”

    In its response to the decision, Google called the ruling “a victory for consumers, interoperability, and computer science. The decision gives legal certainty to the next generation of developers whose new products and services will benefit consumers.”

    While good news for developers looking to further interoperability of programs, the ruling might also help consumers, Lori Andrews, a professor of law at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, says in an email. Software underpins more and more aspects of society, and allowing fair use access to copyrighted code could potentially “allow challenges to any discriminatory factors built into the code” in the future, she argues.

    But the ruling doesn’t necessarily mean software developed in a similar manner will always be protected under fair use. “Given the fact-specific nature of fair use, there remains some risk that some efforts to build [interoperable products]—partial or full [interoperability]—could be deemed insufficiently transformative,” Menell warns in an email.

    Reusing some aspects of APIs is also a “longstanding” practice in the software industry, says Former, who argues it explains “some of the wide success” of the industry because it “makes software more available, and makes it easier for people to switch to better products.”

    The Supreme Court has now affirmed Google’s use of that practice in the highest court in the land, in a ruling that could help “the software industry to continue to grow and not get stuck in obsolete programs or standards,” she continues. “So the ruling today is a huge victory for computer programmers and users, which is just about everyone these days.”

  • Tue, 06 Apr 2021 11:00:04 +0000

    Electric Cars Can Sound Like Anything. That’s a Huge Opportunity to Craft the Soundscape of the Future

    Pulling Ford’s new all-electric Mustang Mach-E out of a Brooklyn garage late this winter, I felt a little duped. It seemed more like I was driving a giant motorized iPad than the electrified successor to an iconic American muscle car. Just a few weeks earlier, the company’s sound designers told me about the lengths to which they had gone to design and digitally produce the perfect engine noise, experimenting with recordings of electric guitars, Formula E race-car engine sounds and the hum of high-voltage power lines. But inside the loaner car’s cabin, I didn’t hear anything at all. Then, while messing around on the vehicle’s touchscreen, I found—and immediately pressed—an all-too-tempting button to engage “unbridled mode.” Next time I hit the accelerator, the car took off, emitting the throaty, electric roar of a cyberpunk spaceship. Now that was more like it.

    Because their motors have few moving parts, electric vehicles (EVs) are shockingly quiet. That might sound like a blessing for city dwellers and others sick of traffic noise, but it can create added risk for drivers (who rely on engine noise to get a sense of their speed) and pedestrians (who listen for oncoming traffic). For automakers, it also compromises decades of marketing based on the alluring rumble of a revving engine, especially in sports cars and trucks. “As a car person, there are a lot of expectations for what a car should sound like,” says Ram Chandrasekaran, a transportation analyst at consultancy Wood Mackenzie. “[Even] for a regular person who doesn’t care about V-8 engines or manual transmissions, there’s still an innate expectation that when you push the pedal, you hear an auditory response.”

    So companies like Ford have turned to elite teams of sound designers to create new noises that play from EVs’ internal and external speakers, making them safer and more marketable. With EVs on the cusp of widespread adoption—analysts predict their share of U.S. auto sales will quadruple to 8.5% in the next four years—these specialists are getting a once-in-a-lifetime chance to create the sounds that will dominate 21st century highways and cities, just as the constant drone of internal-combustion engines dominated those of the 20th.

    The sound designers who spoke to TIME for this story, from companies like BMW, Audi and Ford, often framed their work as an effort to encode their brands’ ethos into a sound. There’s precedent for that kind of auditory corporate soul-searching, from ESPN’s six-note fanfare to the Yahoo yodel. But there’s greater urgency to the automakers’ work: the longer it takes for people to switch to electric vehicles, the more damage internal-combustion engines will do to our planet. While EVs aren’t completely green—battery production and electricity generation exact an environmental toll—the scientific consensus is that they’re less harmful than gasoline cars. Ninety percent of cars on U.S. roads must be electric by 2050 to meet the Paris Agreement’s goals, but right now, only about 2 in every 100 cars sold in the country are nonhybrid EVs. And in order to sell, EVs have to drive well and far enough to meet people’s needs—as well as sound good to prospective buyers.

    EV sales grew by 40% worldwide last year, to 2.8 million vehicles from 2 million in 2019, despite the global recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Shares in EV maker Tesla soared by over 700% in 2020 after record-shattering production numbers (though their value has since declined). Meanwhile, Chinese electric-car brands like Nio and BYD have unveiled new electric sedans to compete on the global level. Traditional automakers have largely acknowledged that the days of internal-combustion engines are numbered. Ford launched its flagship Mach-E late last year as part of a $22 billion electrification push. BMW aims to double its EV sales in 2021. GM declared early this year that it will make only electric vehicles by 2035. Volkswagen, which embraced EVs after 2015’s infamous “Dieselgate” scandal, could outpace Tesla’s EV sales as soon as next year, according to Deutsche Bank analysts. U.S. President Joe Biden’s victory, and the likely tightening of mileage standards, is likely to spark further growth in EVs.

    Today’s EV buyers are largely what technology analysts call “early adopters”: people who see the benefits of a new innovation despite kinks yet to be hammered out. Convincing electro-skeptics will require advancements not just in performance, range and recharging infrastructure, but successful marketing too. That’s where sound designers come in. Regulators around the world require EVs to emit some kind of sound for safety reasons, though they’ve left it up to automakers to decide exactly what that sound should be—a big challenge, given that they could theoretically sound like just about anything. “It’s kind of like when [the 1993 film] Jurassic Park was made, and they had to come up with the sound of a dinosaur,” says Jonathan Pierce, a senior manager of experiential R&D at Harman, an automotive-technology company. “None of us has ever heard a dinosaur.” In this case, automakers are less re-creating ancient beasts than figuring out what will replace the ones they know so well, but are on the verge of extinction.

    Composer Hans Zimmer’s Los Angeles studio, in June 2019 Courtesy BMWComposer Hans Zimmer’s Los Angeles studio, in June 2019

    Sound designers have long helped craft everything from the roar of a car’s engines to the satisfying thump of a closing door. But they have never had the opportunity to shape the soundscape of the future on such a massive scale. For sound engineers, it’s like getting the chance to design not just the Guggenheim but the entire Manhattan skyline. In the notoriously rivalrous world of car design, there’s little agreement about what that soundscape should be.

    Broadly, automakers are divided into two camps. The first includes those who’ve drawn inspiration from the sound of gasoline cars—or at least tried to make it sound as if something is at work under the hood, though often with a futuristic edge. Audi falls into this category, as does Ford, where sound engineers tried to make the Mustang Mach-E sound reminiscent of its gasoline-powered namesake. “It has to have a perception of power, a perception of grit,” says Ford sound-design engineer Brian Schabel. Engineers at British automaker Jaguar took a similar route, paring down the essence of a rumbling V-8 engine and high-revving motorbikes for its I-PACE electric crossover. “You want to get right to the good state where people are comfortable with it, they can understand it, and it’s not too weird,” says Jaguar Land Rover sound engineer Iain Suffield. Audi sound engineer Stephan Gsell agrees. “The vehicle is a technical device,” he says. “It’s not a musical instrument.”

    On the other side are carmakers that have little interest in replicating the sound of a gasoline engine at all. “We shouldn’t be trying to communicate that there are moving pistons in this thing,” says Danni Venne, lead producer and director of innovation at Made Music Studio, an audio branding agency that designed the engine sound for a recent iteration of the Nissan LEAF. “We’re somewhere else now technologically.” The LEAF sound, Venne says, has “a little bit of a singing quality to it.” GM also took a step in the musical direction, creating EV sounds using sampled guitar, piano and didgeridoo. “We want it to sound organic, yet futuristic,” says GM sound engineer Jigar Kapadia.

    Then there’s whatever BMW is doing with its i4 electric-sedan concept. At low speeds, the i4 sounds like an electrified orchestra warming up for a performance. But as it accelerates, the tone becomes deeper and lower. Then comes a high-pitched skittering effect, as if some kind of reality-bending reaction were taking place under the hood. “We conceived a sound to celebrate the car, intended as a highly complex performative art installation,” says BMW sound designer Renzo Vitale. Vitale, who worked alongside famed film-score composer Hans Zimmer on the i4, says it was his counterintuitive idea to make the noise deepen as the car gains speed. “It was a metaphoric way to say, ‘We are looking at the past,'” he says. Given Vitale’s curriculum vitae, it’s not surprising BMW ended up with an unconventional result: he composes electronic and orchestral music in his free time, used to play in progressive metal bands and, while getting his Ph.D. in acoustics at Germany’s RWTH Aachen University, created bold live performance art. “I was performing naked, painted black in crazy installations,” Vitale says.

    While sound designers like Vitale are excited about the artistic potential in EV sound design, automakers are salivating over the marketing opportunities. One highly produced promotional video posted online by Audi dramatizes its engineers’ search for the perfect sound, featuring the team pensively observing helicopters and wind tunnels. Ford worked with a musician to produce an EDM track sampling the Mach-E’s engine tone. Zimmer features heavily in a recent BMW promo video advertising his work on the i4. “Sound underlines the soul of anything,” the composer says in the spot. “Right now, we are at a really exciting point, shaping the sound of the future.”

    Audi sound engineers Stephan Gsell and Rudolf Halbmeir experiment with sound-production techniques Courtesy AudiAudi sound engineers Stephan Gsell and Rudolf Halbmeir experiment with sound-production techniques

    All this marketing and branding exuberance may die down if car buyers embrace vehicles that are simply quieter rather than noisy in a different way; EV engine tones may eventually be pared down to only the simplest, most essential sounds. Some experts think carmakers will start using retro gasoline-engine sounds in EVs. Others suggest they will include systems that enable drivers to customize their cars’ engine noises, to make them sound like anything from a motorboat to a spaceship. (Tesla CEO Elon Musk is particularly fond of similar gimmicks; Wikipedia’s “List of Easter eggs in Tesla products” includes more than two dozen examples.)

    That last scenario alarms Trevor Cox, a professor of acoustic engineering at the University of Salford in the U.K. and author of The Sound Book: The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World. “The submotive sound of every city is pretty much its cars,” says Cox. “As soon as you change the sound of cars, you’re going to change how the city sounds.” He argues that excessive customization and diversity of vehicle sound could turn urban soundscapes into jarring, chaotic disasters. “We have a sense of what hell would be like, because we lived through it when people first got mobile phones,” he says. “[Everyone] decided to have a ringtone that was individual, and you had this horrible cacophony.”

    But plenty of people leave their smartphones in vibrate-only mode, and it’s likely that most EVs will end up being quiet compared with the gas-powered models we’re used to. That could have major benefits for city dwellers in particular, as studies show that constant exposure to traffic noise can increase people’s risk for high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke. Combined with their lack of emissions, EVs’ relative silence could even make it less awful to live near a major road, fundamentally changing urban design. For that to happen, some sound experts say automakers need to remember that what sounds innovative and interesting in a studio might inspire quite a different feeling for people out in the real world. “We need to have some self-imposed guardrails,” says Pierce. “Not only to do right by our customers but to worry about the society as a whole.”

    Driving around New York City in Ford’s Mach-E, I thought about what the roads of the future might sound like. The not-quite-Mustang produced a humming, vaguely electric noise as it accelerated, halfway between a pony car and a Star Wars pod racer. Several EV sound designers spoke about being inspired by sci-fi movies; Zimmer himself composed the score for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. Those films may have created a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, as our imagined futures shape the real sounds of our streets. While sci-fi movies tend to be dystopian, these designers’ work may end up making our future cities at least a little safer and healthier, with less sound and air pollution. But exactly what our streets will sound like when they’re crowded with EVs is still in the hands of those auditory specialists with their strings and synths. “Hans and I keep talking about elegance, the idea of bringing elegance to the streets,” says Vitale. “We want to share a vision of the sound of the future that maybe helps make cities a better place.”

    Correction, April 8
    The original version of this story misstated Ford’s investment in EVs. The company is investing $22 billion, not $11 billion.
  • Mon, 05 Apr 2021 20:09:08 +0000

    Facebook Says It Supports Internet Regulation. Here’s an Ambitious Proposal That Might Actually Make a Difference

    Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is telling everyone who will listen that it is time to regulate the internet. But do Facebook and other platform companies support meaningful oversight or simply a regulatory Potemkin Village?

    Zuckerberg’s efforts began with a 2019 op-ed in the Washington Post, “The Internet needs new rules.” The article proposed four specific actions including things that Facebook was already doing. A few months later Facebook released a white paper reiterating the ideas. When it was presented to the European Union, the official responsible described it as “too low in terms of responsibility.” It is this same set of proposals that are the basis for Facebook’s multimillion-dollar television, print and digital advertising campaign proclaiming, “We support updated internet regulations.”

    Affirming the need for oversight of digital platforms is a positive step and should be applauded. But for the last 20 years, tech companies such as Facebook have fought government oversight, warning that regulation would break the magic of digital technology and the wonders of “permissionless innovation.” Now, however, as other nations, and even states within the U.S., have made differing efforts to mitigate the harms delivered by Big Tech, a common set of national rules no longer seems so onerous.

    A tried-and-true lobbying strategy is to loudly proclaim support for lofty principles while quietly working to hollow out the implementation of such principles. The key is to move beyond embracing generic concepts to deal with regulatory specifics. The headline on Politico’s report of the March 25 House of Representatives hearing, “D.C.’s Silicon Valley crackdown enters the haggling phase,” suggests that such an effort has begun. Being an optimist, I want to take Facebook at its word that it supports updated internet regulations. Being a pragmatist and former regulator, though, I believe we need to know exactly what such regulations would provide.

    Read more: Facebook’s “Oversight Board” Is a Sham. The Answer to the Capitol Riot Is Regulating Social Media

    At the March hearing, Zuckerberg was asked by Vermont Rep. Peter Welch, a Democrat, if he would support creating a new federal agency to regulate digital platforms. The reply was encouraging: “The solution that you’re talking about could be very effective and positive for helping out.” Such an agency has been proposed by a group of former regulators of which I am part. If the haggling has begun, it is worthwhile to identify some of the items worth haggling over.

    First off is the new agency itself. The preponderance of proposals in Congress are to give increased authority to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC, its commissioners and staff are dedicated public servants, but the agency is already overburdened with an immense jurisdiction. There is a history of companies seeking to transfer oversight to the FTC in an effort to get its issues lost amid other the issues of other companies. Oversight of digital platforms should not be a bolt-on to an existing agency but requires full-time specialized focus.

    The European Union has proposed a new regime to regulate platforms that have “gatekeeper” power. The United Kingdom has similarly proposed new oversight for platforms with “significant market share.” The United States, too, needs a focused and specialized government oversight to protect consumers and competition.

    Digital companies complain (not without some merit) that current regulation with its rigid rules is incompatible with rapid technology developments. To build agile policies capable of evolving with technology, the new agency should take a page from the process used in developing the technology standards that created the digital revolution. In that effort, the companies came together to agree on exactly how things would work. This time, instead of technical standards, there would be behavioral standards.

    The subject matter of these new standards should be identified by the agency, which would convene industry and public stakeholders to propose a code, much like electric codes and fire codes. Ultimately, the agency would approve or modify the code and enforce it. While there is no doubt that such a new approach is ambitious, the new challenges of the digital giants require new tools.

    Such a structure could help deal with the current congressional concern about misinformation, for instance. The agency could identify harmful content as an issue, convene a code-setting group and instruct that group to develop behavioral standards by which the companies would build algorithms to curate content for veracity rather than revenue and identify and mitigate harmful content as an editorial responsibility. These standards could require transparency into such efforts and mandate audits to assess the platforms’ efforts.

    The new agency could also develop a code of privacy practices. Currently, the “privacy protections” of the platform companies are not “protections,” but rather “permissions” to which the consumer must consent before being allowed to use the service. Those policies are typically indecipherable legalese and vary from one platform to another. The new agency could oversee, approve and enforce privacy expectations for the digital platforms.

    It could also be an important part of efforts to promote and protect competition in the digital marketplace. The Justice Department and FTC would continue their enforcement of the antitrust laws, and Congress would consider whether and how to update those laws. Yet a limitation of antitrust enforcement is that it focuses on a single company rather than broad industry practices. The new agency could enhance competition through specified and enforceable industry-wide behavioral expectations that identify and ban anti-competitive activities while mandating the promotion of pro-competition activities.

    “Technology has changed a lot since 1996,” the Facebook ads proclaim, “Shouldn’t internet regulations change too?” The answer is “of course.” The relevant question for the authors of the ad campaign is, just what kind of regulation does Facebook support?

  • Fri, 02 Apr 2021 16:34:54 +0000

    America Can’t Wait for Legislators to Rein in Big Tech. The Biden Administration Must Focus on Antitrust

    President Biden faces challenges greater than any president since FDR. The country is struggling with a deadly pandemic that has shaken the economy and exposed its structural flaws. His political opponents refuse to engage with those challenges, choosing instead to focus their efforts on undermining democracy. Powerful business interests in technology, health care, finance, energy, and agriculture are pursuing agendas that make President Biden’s job all the more difficult. But perhaps the most uniquely destabilizing force in America today is the major internet platforms. Their business models fundamentally reduce human agency, and, in some cases, threaten democracy and public health, as we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Even if Republicans were willing to cooperate, there would not be enough time in the congressional calendar to address all of these issues through legislation. As things stand, the legislative calendar prior to the 2022 midterms is likely to be dominated by infrastructure and voting rights. Fortunately, there is much that the executive branch can do. Given the scope and novelty of the challenges, President Biden will be best served by appointees who share his bold vision and are willing to embrace new approaches to large and difficult problems.

    The first round of appointments in the Biden administration include cabinet officers and other officials committed to reversing the worst excesses of the Trump years, in areas such as immigration, use of federal lands, and foreign policy. This is essential, but not enough.

    The pandemic has exposed structural flaws in our economy caused by concentrated economic power. For forty years, the country has allowed markets to rule the economy with ever diminishing oversight, which has led to massive income inequality and the exploitation of essential workers. Employees are powerless to improve their lot, due to lack of alternatives and our country’s unique approach to health insurance and the financing of higher education.

    A small number of choices led to our current predicament and the Biden administration has an opportunity, and perhaps a need, to reverse them all. The list begins with conservative jurist Robert Bork’s successful effort to free capital from regulatory constraints. The elimination of laws like Glass-Steagall in 1999 helped to shift the financial markets’ focus from capital formation for economic growth to capital harvesting through trading and private equity. The Obama administration’s decision in 2013 not to prosecute a major antitrust case against Google helped unleash surveillance capitalism. In each case, the benefits of these choices accrued to the privileged, while the harms—to the economy, public health, democracy, and the right to self-determination—have touched the overwhelming majority of Americans. For example, the repeal of Glass-Steagall helped lead to financial crisis of 2008, which cost Americans an estimated $12.8 trillion.

    The costs of not prosecuting Google are still mounting, but that case enabled internet platforms to build a huge business on personal data and to influence and sometimes manipulate user behavior. In addition to undermining personal autonomy, platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Google and others have amplified disinformation that harmed public health during a pandemic and democracy during two presidential elections. The concentrated economic power of internet platforms has also caused harm to journalism, book publishing, music, and a wide range of small businesses.

    Internet platforms allow a separate reality for every American. Democracy depends on a shared set of facts, and the Biden administration’s voting rights agenda should include policies to limit harm to democracy from internet platforms. Such policies can help us fully beat the pandemic and revive the economy. In the short run, the best tool will be antitrust law enforcement by the executive branch. Antitrust is not a complete solution, but it can buy time for legislation.

    Right now, Google and Facebook are the subject of two federal and five stage antitrust cases. The Antitrust Division of DOJ is leading only one of those cases. That needs to change. The top priority should be to intervene against the industries where concentration of economic power has aggravated the economic and human cost of the pandemic, specifically internet platforms, health care, agriculture, and banking.

    This will require a new approach to antitrust enforcement, lead by new blood not involved in the formulation and execution of the policies of the past four decades. President Biden has taken a step in that direction with the appointment of Lina Khan to the Federal Trade Commission, but two key seats remain open: the chair of the FTC and the assistant attorney general at the top of the DOJ antitrust division.

    For these critical roles, the administration must select nominees with the track record and integrity to inspire confidence among the public given that so many previous officials have been previously enlisted in Big Tech’s defense. Many names have circulated, all people with impressive experience. Unfortunately, many of those candidates played a role in formulating or defending policies that must be reversed.

    The most qualified pick for this time and situation would be Jonathan Kanter, who began his career at the FTC, co-chaired the antitrust practice at one of Washington’s leading law firms, and developed the theories underlying successful antitrust actions against Google in Europe and the US. Given recent Republican support for antitrust intervention against internet platforms, an aggressive choice might be welcome in Congress.

    Antitrust enforcement is not a silver bullet for the economy, but in the face of great challenges, it presents President Biden with a chance to halt a wide range of harmful behaviors and buy time for legislative action. But without the right person leading the government’s antitrust enforcement efforts, we won’t stand a chance.

  • Thu, 01 Apr 2021 15:57:21 +0000

    How Russia Is Stepping Up Its Campaign to Control the Internet

    On March 10, photos and videos on Twitter were loading more slowly than usual for users in Russia. It was not a network fault or server error but a deliberate move by Russia’s state internet regulator Roskomnadzor to limit traffic to the social media site, in what experts say was the first public use of controversial new technology that the Russian authorities introduced after 2019. The regulator throttled the U.S. platform in retaliation for what it described as a failure to remove thousands of posts that “encourage underage suicide and contain child pornography as well as information about drug use.” The action came after Russian authorities had accused Twitter and other social networks in January of failing to delete posts urging children to take part in anti-government protests.

    In January and February, Russia’s Anti-Corruption Foundation organized protests in dozens of cities on Facebook and Russian social network VKontakte against the arrest of its head, Alexei Navalny. Tens of thousands of people protested in more than 100 cities across the country demanding the release of the opposition figure whose YouTube investigation into alleged corruption by President Vladimir Putin received tens of millions of views upon its release. Navalny was sentenced on Feb. 2 to two years and eight months in prison for violating parole from an embezzlement case dating back to 2014 that he says was fabricated.

    In response to the slowdown, Twitter said it did not support any “unlawful behaviour” and was “deeply concerned” by the regulator’s attempts to block online public conversation. But on March 16 Roskomnadzor gave a fresh warning that if Twitter refused to comply with its removal requests within a month, the regulator will consider blocking access to the social network in Russia outright. Roskomnadzor, a federal executive body founded in 2008, is responsible for ensuring the media and communications follow Russian laws, and issuing warnings to media sources that violate these laws.

    Twitter has only 700,000 monthly active users in Russia, a fraction of the 68.7 million in the U.S. Despite its use by opposition politicians and journalists the Kremlin doesn’t consider it “the most dangerous” platform, says Andrei Soldatov, a Russian cyber expert. Experts say that the authorities used the Twitter slowdown to test technology that could be used to disrupt other, more popular social networks like Facebook, which has an estimated 23 million active monthly users in Russia.

    The manner in which Twitter was throttled opens up a new front in the war between the government of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the open internet. For a decade now, the Kremlin has sought to control online information by censoring or removing content and blocking mobile Internet access completely. Now, authorities are aggressively taking the fight to social media platforms, which are dominated by American-owned companies. The government passed a law in December to increase fines on online platforms and Internet providers for failing to remove material calling for extremist activity, information about recreational drugs and child sex abuse; companies can now be fined between 10% to 20% of their yearly turnover in Russia for repeatedly failing to remove content. A law passed the same month gave Roskomnadzor the power to restrict or fully block websites that, according to officials, discriminate against Russian state media.

    The widespread anti-government rallies earlier this year seem to have crossed a line for Putin. In recent months, the President has said tech companies are “competing with states” and that “society will collapse from the inside” if the Internet does not obey legal rules and society’s moral laws. As the government has ramped up its efforts to control what citizens can access online it also has several projects in the pipeline that experts say is part of a strategy to push foreign tech companies out of the Russian market completely. From April 1, Roskomnadzor requires tech companies selling smartphones in Russia to prompt users to download government-approved apps, including search engines, maps and payment systems.

    The state “likely wants to see, and allow dissemination of, information that only reflects the official government point of view,” says Mike Tretyak, a partner with the Digital Rights Center law firm and expert with Roskomsvoboda, an NGO dedicated to digital rights. Could it be getting closer to succeeding?

    Ten years of attempting to take control

    For activists, this year looks like history repeating itself. Since mass demonstrations against electoral fraud began a decade ago—also organized by opposition figures using Facebook and VKontakte—the state has been developing a legal and technological toolkit to regulate online information, introducing content filters, block lists and fining or even jailing people for what they post online.

    In 2012, Russia began blacklisting and forcing offline websites with the purported goal of protecting minors from harmful sites, including those that give details about how to commit suicide. In 2014 a law allowed Roskomnadzor to block access to media that calls for mass riots, extremist activities, or participation in unsanctioned mass public events. Government critics have been targeted; Navalny’s Live Journal blog, which published investigations about corruption in Russian politics, and other political opposition sites were blocked. (Roskomnadzor said they were banned for calling on people to illegally participate in mass events).

    More recently, Russia has initiated regional network blackouts. In October 2018, the Russian government cut mobile data service in the Ingushetia region in southwestern Russia during political protests—the first such Internet outage in the country. In August 2019, the government blocked mobile Internet during protests in Moscow in what the Internet Protection Society, a digital rights group, said was the first state-mandated shutdown of this kind in the capital.

    Then, in November 2019, the Kremlin made its most controversial move yet toward controlling the country’s Internet infrastructure with the so-called “sovereign Internet” law. A series of amendments to existing laws theoretically enabled the Russian authorities to isolate “RuNet”—the unofficial name for websites hosted in Russia and sites on Russian domain names— from the global web in vaguely defined times of crisis, giving the Russian authorities control over flows of data coming in and out of the country.

    In an explanatory note about the new law, the Russian legislature said that it was created in light of the “aggressive nature of the U.S. National Cyber Security Strategy”, in which the U.S. threatened to punish countries including Russia, China, Iran and North Korea if they used cyber tools to “undermine” its economy and democracy, and steal its intellectual property. The Russia legislature claimed that Russia needs to take “protective measures to ensure the long term and stable operation of the Internet in Russia, and to increase the reliability of Russian internet resources.”

    The “sovereign Internet” law required Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to install Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) equipment, which has been used by some countries, like China, for censorship. DPI equipment enables Russia to circumvent providers, automatically block content the government has banned and reroute internet traffic.

    Russia’s major ISPs have now installed DPI equipment, according to Alena Epifanova, a researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations. But no one knows if or when Russia will be able to cut off its Internet from the global web. “The information about its implementation process and its scope is kept under wraps,” says Treyak. What’s certain is that Russia does not yet have the technological capacity to create a Chinese-style Great Firewall. Unlike China, which brought ISPs under state control early on, Russia is deeply integrated in the global web having enjoyed a largely free Internet for decades.

    As the government has attempted to control information emerging from Russia, so has it tried to limit what is accessible in Russia from abroad. It has required search engines, including Google, to delete some results and social networks to store their user data on servers within Russia. Roskomnadzor hit Google with a fine of three million rubles ($41,000) for not removing content banned by the authorities in 2020. Roskomnadzor blocked LinkedIn in 2016 and fined Twitter and Facebook 4 million rubles ($53,000) in 2020 for failing to store user data in Russia.

    Although these fines are pocket change to these huge corporations, some have buckled under Roskomnadzor’s threats to block them if they don’t comply with censorship orders. In 2018, Facebook-owned Instagram, which has 54 million users in Russia, complied with the regulator’s requests to remove posts connected to corruption allegations by Navalny. In a tweet Navalny accused Instagram of submitting to “illegal censorship orders”. “Shame on you Instagram!” he wrote.

    YouTube, where Navalny and his group post most of their investigative videos, refused to comply. But now, Russia has upped the stakes. After Roskomnadzor threatened to prosecute social media sites for encouraging minors to join the January protests, the regulator said TikTok deleted 38% of its related content, while YouTube and Russian social media site VKontakte removed half.

    This was not enough for the authorities. Earlier this month, Russia filed a lawsuit against Twitter and four other tech companies for allegedly failing to delete enough of such posts. Twitter, Google, Facebook each have three cases against them and for each violation they face a fine of up to 4 million roubles ($54,000). Cases have also been filed against TikTok and Telegram.

    Russian apps for Russian Internet users

    The authorities are now moving not just to reduce the influence of foreign tech companies but also to force them to promote Russian services — as with the new regulation mandating government-approved apps on all new smartphones. Apple has agreed to this, the first time the company will offer users the ability to install outside software on its devices at setup.

    Tretyak, of the Roskomsvoboda digital rights group, says Apple’s compliance is understandable, a “mild” policy to protect Russian apps that are already used by the majority of Russians. But Soldatov says the idea is to discourage Russians from using foreign social networks such as TikTok, which many Russians were nudged into using during the Navalny protests. “It’s all about numbers. If you have 200,000 politically active people sharing videos about Navalny, that’s nothing. But if you have millions of ordinary Russians joining it, that’s a threat,” he says.

    That helps to explains why Russian companies are building alternatives to foreign services, he says. Gazprom Media Holding, a subsidiary of state-energy giant Gazprom, is building an app similar to TikTok. A Russian Wikipedia is expected to launch in 2023 to ensure Russians have access to more “detailed and reliable” information about their country.

    There is “a fine line between compliance with mild protectionist policies,” such as Apple listing Russian apps, and “compliance with removal of sensitive materials such as corruption allegations,” says Tretyak. “My belief is that each company should select its own behavioral strategy upon being approached by any government — not only the Russian one – possibly, according to its own internal moral code,” he says.

    The government is also working on a bill that aims to give Russian security services total access to communications over encrypted connections and the ability to see what sites people visit. Epifanova says that it’s very likely the law will be passed, but it’s unlikely that tech companies will comply with the measure. They have rejected calls from law enforcement agencies around the world to provide access to encrypted information to assist in certain criminal investigations. The move is part of a “strategy to push out foreign tech companies while promoting Russian companies,” says Epifanova.

    How digital rights activists are fighting back

    Ordinary citizens in Russia are increasingly looking for ways to shrug off state Internet controls. The Moscow-based Roskomsvoboda and the Internet Protection Center are among the digital rights groups and activists dedicating resources to helping Russians get around new restrictions. Roskomsvoboda’s website features a list of all the online resources blocked in Russia, instructions on how to get around online bans, and news about the country’s Internet regulation.

    The group also keeps a public list of reliable Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which allow users to gain access to blocked websites. However, the government has also required some popular providers to block access to blacklisted websites. Individual activists offer advice too; Vladislav Zdolnikov, an IT specialist, runs a Telegram channel that explains the latest developments in Russia’s internet regulation and recommends circumvention tools.

    Free Internet activists also continue exploring new ways to democratize technology. On March 21 and 22, Roskomsvoboda ran a “hackathon,” Demhack 2, for 15 teams of developers across Russia. Their aim was “to find technical solutions aimed at protecting the rights and realizing the interests of citizens in the digital environment,” says Natalia Malysheva, the hackathon’s producer and Roskomsvoboda’s press secretary. There is no shortage of ideas. Roskomsvoboba says it receives about 100 proposals for each hackathon.

    The judging panel of digital experts chose two winners on March 22 for prizes that included the chance to put their projects in front of investors. The first winner was Security Addon, an app that can prevent information on a device from being accessed if it is hacked or stolen. The second, the Deep Silent app, helps users download information to their phones even if the signal is limited, making it a useful resource if the internet is restricted.

    As well as helping developers to build their technical solutions, Roskomsvoboda are building their own tools. Last year, they launched Censor Tracker, an extension for Google Chrome, that can help users to detect and bypass internet restrictions. In launching the extension tool, the group made it clear how high they believe the stakes now are. “We’re getting ready to confront the approaching sovereign Runet,” they wrote.


  • Wed, 24 Mar 2021 15:49:30 +0000

    What Do Shrimp, Cinnamon Toast Crunch and ‘Boy Meets World’ Have in Common? One Viral Tweet

    Something fishy might be going on at the Cinnamon Toast Crunch factory—at least according to one Twitter user who claims he found shrimp tails in a box of the popular cereal.

    The alleged shellfish discovery, which kickstarted a viral Twitter saga in the vein of Gorilla Glue Girl and Bean Dad, was made on Monday by Jensen Karp, a podcast host and husband of Boy Meets World star Danielle Fishel, who played Topanga Lawrence on the seminal sitcom. Initially, Karp tweeted out what appears to be a photo of two sugar-coated shrimp tails mixed in with the brand’s signature cereal squares. This prompted the official Cinnamon Toast Crunch Twitter account to offer to send a replacement box—a response that didn’t seem to satisfy Karp.

    That’s when things truly took a turn for the bizarre.

    Following an alleged direct message exchange, Cinnamon Toast Crunch popped back up to insist that, actually, what Karp had found were just clumps of cinnamon sugar: “After further investigation with our team that closely examined the image, it appears to be an accumulation of the cinnamon sugar that sometimes can occur when ingredients aren’t thoroughly blended,” the cereal account tweeted. “We assure you that there’s no possibility of cross contamination with shrimp.”

    The only issue with that response, for Karp, was that they clearly appeared to be shrimp tails. “Ok, well after further investigation with my eyes, these are cinnamon coated SHRIMP TAILS, you weirdos,” Karp tweeted in response, earning over 154,000 likes as of Wednesday morning. “I wasn’t all that mad until you now tried to gaslight me?”

    Twitter users took it from there, breathing life into the budding controversy by firing off jokes and proposing theories as to what might have caused the alleged shrimp fiasco.

    As Karp made a more thorough inspection of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch bag, he claimed he also found a piece of string, cereal squares with mystery black bits baked into them and some more shrimp detritus. This led some to suggest the whole incident was the result of rats having made a home in some of General Mills’ dry ingredients. Karp noted that still didn’t explain why the other bag of cereal in the family pack appeared to be taped shut.

    “While we are still investigating this matter, we can say with confidence that this did not occur at our facility,” Mike Siemienas, a spokesperson for General Mills, said in a statement to TIME. “We are waiting for the consumer to send us the package to investigate further. Any consumers who notice their cereal box or bag has been tampered with, such as the clear tape that was found in this case, should contact us.”

    Karp declined to send General Mills his findings due to the company’s sugar clumps claim, and says he is having the shrimp species identified by a crustacean researcher. He also claims to have taken some of the black-marked cereal pieces to a lab for further examination.

    “I’m a comedy writer, but like, there’s no joke here,” he told the New York Times. “To take down my favorite cereal brand? I don’t even know why that’s a funny joke. I love Cinnamon Toast Crunch. It’s the only cereal I eat.”

    Only time will tell how this saga of shrimp, cereal and Boy Meets World will come to an end. But some are already using it for actual culinary inspiration.

    As this story continued to gather steam on Wednesday, a number of Twitter users shared posts accusing Karp of abuse or mistreatment. In one tweet that has been liked over 14 thousand times as of Wednesday afternoon, writer Melissa Stetten, who identified herself as a past romantic partner of Karp, alleged that he had emotionally and verbally abused her during their relationship.

  • Tue, 23 Mar 2021 10:00:34 +0000

    Facebook Acted Too Late to Tackle Misinformation on 2020 Election, Report Finds

    Facebook could have prevented billions of views on pages that shared misinformation related to the 2020 U.S. election, according to a new report released Tuesday, which slams the platform for “creating the conditions that swept America down the dark path from election to insurrection.”

    The report, by the online advocacy group Avaaz, found that if Facebook had not waited until October to tweak its algorithms to stem false and toxic content amplified on the platform, the company could have prevented an estimated 10.1 billion views on the 100 most prominent pages that repeatedly shared misinformation on the platform ahead of the election.

    For much of the summer of 2020, at the height of anti-racism protests and amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, data from Avaaz shows that the top 100 “repeat misinformers” received millions more interactions on Facebook than the top 100 traditional U.S. media pages combined.

    “The scary thing is that this is just for the top 100 pages—this is not the whole universe of misinformation,” says Fadi Quran, a campaign director at Avaaz who worked on the report. “This doesn’t even include Facebook Groups, so the number is likely much bigger. We took a very, very conservative estimate in this case.”

    Avaaz defined the top 100 repeat misinformers as pages that had shared at least three pieces of misinformation (as defined by Facebook’s own third party fact-checkers), including two within 90 days of each other. On average, the top 100 misinformers shared eight confirmed pieces of misinformation each—and refused to correct them after they were labeled by Facebook-affiliated fact-checkers. “Fact-checkers have limited resources, and can only fact-check a subset of misinformation on Facebook,” the report said, explaining the methodology as a way of determining pages that were “highly likely to not be seeking to consistently share trustworthy content.”

    In a statement, Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone disputed the report’s methodology. “This report distorts the serious work we’ve been doing to fight violent extremism and misinformation on our platform,” he said. “Avaaz uses a flawed methodology to make people think that just because a Page shares a piece of fact-checked content, all the content on that Page is problematic.”

    Stone said Facebook has “done more than any other Internet company to combat harmful content,” banning militarized social movements including QAnon, and removing millions of pieces of misinformation about COVID-19 and election interference. “Our enforcement isn’t perfect, which is why we’re always improving it while also working with outside experts to make sure that our policies remain in the right place,” he said.

    The 10.1 billion number is intentionally broad to “show Facebook’s role in providing fertile ground for and incentivizing a larger ecosystem of misinformation and toxicity,” Avaaz said. But the group also quantified the number of views accumulated by the 100 most popular pieces of content ahead of the election that were flagged as false or misleading by Facebook-affiliated fact checkers: 162 million.

    Zuckerberg heading to the Hill

    The report’s findings increase pressure on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg ahead of an important week in Washington. On Thursday he, along with Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai, will face Congress for the first time since the storming of the U.S. Capitol by angry Trump supporters and extremists on Jan. 6—an event that was partly planned on their platforms. Two subcommittees of the House Energy & Commerce Committee are expected to grill them on how their algorithms amplify disinformation and allow the spread of extremist ideologies.

    Avaaz also said it found 118 pages, with nearly 27 million followers, still active as of March 19 on the platform, that had shared what the group said was “violence-glorifying content” related to the election. The group said that 58 were aligned with QAnon, anti-government militias, or Boogaloo, a far-right movement based on the idea of an impending civil war.

    The posts included calls for “armed revolt,” memes about ambushing National Guard members to steal their ammunition, and other violent threats, according to Avaaz. All 118 of the pages were reported to Facebook by Avaaz during the election cycle, Quran said. Facebook removed 18 of them, including 14 after receiving an advance copy of the report on March 19, said Stone, the Facebook spokesperson. The rest did not violate Facebook’s policies, he said.

    Big Tech CEO's Testify Before Senate On Section 230 Immunity Getty Images—2020 Getty Images CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg appears on a monitor as he testifies remotely during the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee hearing ‘Does Section 230’s Sweeping Immunity Enable Big Tech Bad Behavior?’, on Capitol Hill, October 28, 2020 in Washington, DC.

    The report’s findings illustrate how quickly movements like QAnon and “Stop the Steal” groups, which connected ordinary Americans, political activists and far-right extremist groups in the same online ecosystem, were able to grow before Facebook took action. By the time it removed some of the largest QAnon groups last summer and fall, the movement was far too large to be contained, and its followers simply moved to other platforms like Parler, Telegram and Gab, where some went on to organize for the Jan. 6 insurrection.

    Many of the lawmakers set to grill Zuckerberg in Washington on Thursday have signaled that after years of similar hearings, their patience is wearing thin. “We’ve had Mark Zuckerberg in front of the committee, and he gives us superficial answers and a sad face, but he doesn’t go back to the drawing board,” says Rep. Tony Cardenas, a California Democrat on the committee. He says he intends to use his time to question Zuckerberg about Facebook’s failure to stem the spread of Spanish language disinformation and conspiracy theories. “The bottom line is: he knows and he’s acknowledged with us that they can improve, but they don’t invest in those improvements.”

    Will social media face tougher regulation?

    The debate over accountability, content moderation, online misinformation and data privacy issues is likely to take center stage in other ways on Capitol Hill in the coming months as well. Democrats have indicated that they intend to make oversight of social media companies a top priority. Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who was named the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, has said he also expects to call on Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to testify before his panel. Unlike Republicans, who spent hours in previous hearings pressing social media executives on alleged anti-conservative bias, Democrats plan to focus on the platforms’ role in allowing disinformation, hate speech and violent incitement by extremist groups to go unchecked.

    Democrats including President Joe Biden have suggested revoking or rewriting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a key legal provision that protects tech platforms from lawsuits for content posted by their users. Advocates for reform say that the law should be amended to make platforms more legally accountable for content including misinformation and incitement to violence. Although Facebook has publicly said it welcomes Section 230 reform, hostile lawmakers could make changes that would increase the company’s costs or force it to rethink its business model.

    Facebook only stepped up its efforts to reduce the reach of repeat sharers of misinformation in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, according to Avaaz. In October, it banned calls for coordinated interference at polling stations and posts that use “militarized language” meant to intimidate voters. This included words like “army” or “battle,” Facebook’s vice president for content policy Monika Bickert told reporters at the time. This came after the President’s son, Donald Trump Jr., was featured in campaign videos calling for “every able-bodied man and woman to join Army for Trump’s election security operation” to “defend their ballots.”

    At the time, Facebook touted these last-minute changes as decisive actions. The company also said in October that it would display information about how to vote at the top of users’ feeds and add fact-checking labels to false information about the voting process or premature claims of victory by candidates.

    The Avaaz report says even these late measures were implemented inconsistently, allowing millions of views on posts that slipped through the cracks between October and Election Day. It also found that copycats of misinformation posts that Facebook’s own fact-checking partners had debunked went undetected by the company’s AI, accumulating at least 142 million views.

    “The message I have for Mark Zuckerberg is that Facebook needs to stop publicly scoring its own exams, and allow experts and democracies to audit the platform,” Quran says. “It’s time for Zuckerberg to stop saying ‘sorry,’ and start investing in proactive solutions to these problems.”

  • Mon, 22 Mar 2021 16:38:58 +0000

    NFTs Are Shaking Up the Art World—But They Could Change So Much More

    Just a few months ago, Jazmine Boykins was posting her artwork online for free. The 20-year-old digital artist’s dreamy animations of Black life were drawing plenty of likes, comments and shares, but not much income, aside from money she made selling swag with her designs between classes at North Carolina A&T State University.

    But Boykins has recently been selling the same pieces for thousands of dollars each, thanks to an emerging technology upending the rules of digital ownership: NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. NFTs—digital tokens tied to assets that can be bought, sold and traded—are enabling artists like Boykins to profit from their work more easily than ever. “At first, I didn’t know if it was trustworthy or legit,” says Boykins, who goes by the online handle “BLACKSNEAKERS” and who has sold more than $60,000 in NFT art over the past six months. “But to see digital art being bought at these prices, it’s pretty astounding. It’s given me the courage to keep going.”

    NFTs are having their big-bang moment: collectors and speculators have spent more than $200 million on an array of NFT-based artwork, memes and GIFs in the past month alone, according to market tracker, compared with $250 million throughout all of 2020. And that was before the digital artist Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, sold a piece for a record-setting $69 million at famed auction house Christie’s on March 11—the third highest price ever fetched by any currently living artist, after Jeff Koons and David Hockney.

    NFTs are best understood as computer files combined with proof of ownership and authenticity, like a deed. Like cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, they exist on a blockchain—a tamper-resistant digital public ledger. But like dollars, cryptocurrencies are “fungible,” meaning one bitcoin is always worth the same as any other bitcoin. By contrast, NFTs have unique valuations set by the highest bidder, just like a Rembrandt or a Picasso. Artists who want to sell their work as NFTs have to sign up with a marketplace, then “mint” digital tokens by uploading and validating their information on a blockchain (typically the Ethereum blockchain, a rival platform to Bitcoin). Doing so usually costs anywhere from $40 to $200. They can then list their piece for auction on an NFT marketplace, similar to eBay.

    At face value, the whole enterprise seems absurd: big-money collectors paying six to eight figures for works that can often be seen and shared online for free. Critics have dismissed the NFT art craze as just the latest bubble, akin to this year’s boom-and-bust mania around “meme stocks” like GameStop. The phenomenon is attracting a strange brew of not just artists and collectors, but also speculators looking to get rich off the latest fad.

    Beeple, The First Emoji. Part of the $69.3Â million Everydays. Beeple/Christie’sBeeple, The First Emoji. Part of the $69.3 million Everydays.

    A bubble it may be. But many digital artists, fed up after years of creating content that generates visits and engagement on Big Tech platforms like Facebook and Instagram while getting almost nothing in return, have lunged headlong into the craze. These artists of all kinds—authors, musicians, filmmakers—envision a future in which NFTs transform both their creative process and how the world values art, now that it’s possible to truly “own” and sell digital art for the first time. “You will have so many people from different backgrounds and genres coming in to share their art, connect with people and potentially build a career,” Boykins says. “Artists put so much of their time—and themselves—into their work. To see them compensated on an appropriate scale, it’s really comforting.” Technologists, meanwhile, say NFTs are the latest step toward a long-promised blockchain revolution that could radically transform consumer capitalism, with major implications for everything from home loans to health care.

    Read more: TIME releases 3 special edition NFT magazine covers for auction

    Digital art has long been undervalued, in large part because it’s so freely available. To help artists create financial value for their work, NFTs add the crucial ingredient of scarcity. For some collectors, if they know the original version of something exists, they’re more likely to crave the “authentic” piece. Scarcity explains why baseball-card collectors, for example, are willing to pay $3.12 million for a piece of cardboard with a picture of Honus Wagner, a legendary Pittsburgh Pirate. It’s also why sneakerheads obsess over the latest limited-edition drops from Nike and Adidas, and why “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli bought the sole copy of Wu-Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin for $2 million in 2015.

    But baseball cards, sneakers and that Wu-Tang CD all exist in the physical space, so it’s easier to understand why they’re worth something. It can be harder to understand why digital art, or any other digital file, has value.

    Some digital-art collectors say they’re paying not just for pixels but also for digital artists’ labor–in part, the movement is an effort to economically legitimize an emerging art form. “I want you to go on my collection and be like, ‘Oh, these are all unique things that stand out,'” says Shaylin Wallace, a 22-year-old NFT artist and collector. “The artist put so much work into it–and it was sold for the price that it deserved.” The movement is also taking shape after many of us have spent most of the past year online. If nearly your whole world is virtual, it makes sense to spend money on virtual stuff.

    BLACKSNEAKERS, Holding Up The Sun. Sold for: $7,088 BLACKSNEAKERSBLACKSNEAKERS, Holding Up The Sun. Sold for: $7,088

    The groundwork for the digital-art boom was laid in 2017 with the launch of CryptoKitties—think digital Beanie Babies. Fans have spent more than $32 million collecting, trading and breeding these images of wide-eyed one-of-a-kind cartoon cats. Video gamers, meanwhile, have been pouring cash into cosmetic upgrades for their avatars—Fortnite players spent an average of $82 on in-game content in 2019—further mainstreaming the idea of spending real-world money on digital goods. At the same time, cryptocurrencies have been booming in value, fueled in part by celebrity enthusiasts like Elon Musk and Mark Cuban. Bitcoin, for instance, is up more than 1,000% over the past year, and anything remotely crypto-adjacent—including NFTs—is getting swept up in that mania.

    Sensing an opportunity, tech entrepreneurs and brothers Duncan and Griffin Cock Foster last March launched an NFT art marketplace called Nifty Gateway. At the time, NFT art was just heating up in some circles, but it was difficult for newbies to buy, sell and trade pieces. Nifty Gateway prioritized accessibility and usability, helping fuel wider adoption. “It was such an early stage, we didn’t have many expectations about how it would turn out,” Duncan Cock Foster says. But Nifty Gateway users ended up buying and selling more than $100 million worth of art during its first year. Similar platforms, like SuperRare, OpenSea and MakersPlace, have seen similar surges; they typically pocket 10% to 15% of initial sales.

    Big businesses and celebrities are getting in on the action: NBA Top Shot, the National Basketball Association’s official platform to buy and sell NFT-based highlights (packaged like digital trading cards), has racked up over $390 million in sales since its October launch, according to parent company Dapper Labs. Football star Rob Gronkowski has sold NFT trading cards of Super Bowl highlights for over $1.6 million; rock band Kings of Leon made over $2 million by selling NFT music. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey put his first-ever tweet up for auction as an NFT, and it’s expected to sell for at least $2.5 million. The past few months have been a feeding frenzy, with new highs almost daily. Perhaps Beeple put it best after his record-setting auction: “I’m pretty f-cking overwhelmed right now,” he told fans and collaborators gathered on chat app Clubhouse.

    So-called whales are making the biggest deals in the NFT art world. These deep-pocketed investors and cryptocurrency evangelists stand to benefit financially from hyping anything remotely related to crypto. “A Winklevoss spending 700 grand on a Beeple or whatever is very much marketing spend for an idea that they are heavily invested in,” the technologist and artist Mat Dryhurst says, referring to Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, two well-known cryptocurrency bulls who bought Nifty Gateway in late 2019 for an undisclosed amount.

    Pak, METANOIA. Not listed for sale Pak/Sotheby’sPak, METANOIA. Not listed for sale.

    One of those whales is Daniel Maegaard, an Australian crypto trader who made much of what he claims is a $15 million-plus fortune when Bitcoin exploded in value in 2017. Maegaard has bought and sold millions of dollars worth of digital art and other NFT-based goods, like a $1.5 million parcel of land in Axie Infinity, a virtual universe. While Maegaard initially saw NFTs as a means of adding to his wealth, he’s become a true fan of the work, proudly displaying his collection online and excitedly sharing news of new purchases and sales with his followers. He’s particularly attached to a piece called CryptoPunk 8348, an image of a pixelated man who looks vaguely like Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Maegaard, who uses the work as his social media avatar, recently declined a $1 million offer for the piece. “People almost now tie that character to me,” he says. “It’s almost like I’d be selling a part of myself if I ever sold him.”

    But even investors who see NFT art solely as an asset to be bought low and sold high are putting money into artists’ pockets. Andrew Benson, a Los Angeles-based artist, has been experimenting with psychedelic, glitchy digital video work for years. He’s landed his work in museums and galleries, but he’s long held a day job at a software company and taken on commission work for musicians like M.I.A. and Aphex Twin to support himself. “For a long time, my perspective has been that the best way to survive as an artist is to not have to survive as an artist,” Benson says.

    A year and a half ago, when his plans to exhibit a new series of videos fell through, Benson was plagued with doubt about his future in the art world. “I was thinking, Do I even want to go through the trouble of trying to do this kind of work and finding places to show it?” he recalls. Then, in January, a friend who works at an NFT platform called Foundation asked Benson to submit a piece. Benson didn’t think much of it, but sent over a video that otherwise “would have gone on a website or something,” he says. The piece—which looks something like a kinetic, colorful Rorschach—sold within 10 days for $1,250. Since then, Benson has sold 10 more works in the same price range. He’s now pondering a future in which he could sustain himself entirely through his art. “It really kind of shook my worldview, actually,” he says. “Seeing this work find a context and a place where it matters makes me want to think like an artist more.”

    Many other artists working in groundbreaking and sometimes controversial styles are also receiving unprecedented interest from NFT collectors. Art with whirling 3-D renderings, street-style oversaturated color schemes, and hyper-referential (and often crass) cartoons are thriving. These Internet-fueled aesthetics are grabbing the attention of both a younger generation raised on Instagram and a rabble-rousing crypto clientele. “The street art and countercultural styles are being used to reinforce the impression most finance-crypto people have that they are the ‘punks’ in the broader tech and finance world,” Dryhurst says.

    Andrew Benson, Active Gestures 10. Sold for: $3,049 Andrew BensonAndrew Benson, Active Gestures 10. Sold for: $3,049

    These developments have left many in the conventional art world agape. “You have a lot of traditional collectors who look at the NFT space and they can’t plug it into any acceptable system of belief,” says Wendy Cromwell, a New York-based art adviser. “We’re at a real inflection point: a lot of the deeply experienced people in the art world are older and don’t have the interest or mental bandwidth to parse the language of the Internet.” Following Christie’s Beeple sale, however, rival auction house Sotheby’s quickly announced its own partnership with NFT artist Pak, showing that even if art powerhouses might not understand the genre, they understand its financial potential.

    With or without the establishment’s support, a new wave of digital artists is banding together in tight-knit NFT communities, echoing past generations of artists across disciplines and genres hanging out and influencing one another’s thinking, approach and output. “There is a huge ethic of generosity happening in the space,” Benson says. “Typically in the worlds of independent music or fine art, there is a sense that one person is going to make it out of a scene. With this, there’s a feeling of abundance where it really does seem like everyone could benefit.”

    In some cases, the whales and minnows are swimming in tandem. The buyer of the $69 million Beeple piece turned out to be a collector group called Metapurse, two anonymous Singapore-based investors who have been experimenting with tech-driven collective-ownership models. In January, the duo bought 20 Beeple artworks, placed them in a virtual museum that can be visited for free, and then fractionalized their new enterprise into tokens which are now co-owned by 5,400 people. Their value has since increased sixfold as of March 16. The duo is considering a similar move with their latest headline-grabbing purchase, which they hope to display in a cutting-edge virtual museum. The idea, says Metapurse co-partner Twobadour, is to “open up both the experience of art and its ownership to everybody.”

    Shaylin Wallace, Stellar Goddess. Current bid: $2,647 Shaylin WallaceShaylin Wallace, Stellar Goddess. Current bid: $2,647

    Even as artists, collectors and speculators benefit from the NFT craze, the phenomenon is not without its dark side. The barriers to entry—it costs money and requires tech savvy to sell an NFT—could prevent some creators from joining in on the action. Many are concerned that young artists of color in particular will be left out, as they have long been marginalized in the “traditional” art world. Legal experts are scrambling to determine how existing copyright laws will interact with this new technology, as some artists have had their work copied and sold as an NFT without their permission. “It’s providing another platform for people to take advantage of other people’s work,” says artist Connor Bell, whose work was plagiarized and posted on an NFT marketplace.

    Then there are the environmental concerns. Creating NFTs requires an enormous amount of raw computing power, and many of the server farms where that work happens are powered by fossil fuels. “The environmental impact of blockchain is a huge problem,” says Amy Whitaker, an assistant professor of visual arts administration at New York University, though some cryptocurrency advocates argue these fears are overblown.

    Read more: Digital NFT Art Is Booming—But at What Cost?

    Theoretically, climate-minded artists could move to some alternative blockchain platform with less environmental impact. They’re already finding ways to bend NFT technology in other beneficial ways. Some, for instance, are setting up their tokens so they’re compensated every time their work is resold, like an actor getting a royalty check when their show airs as a rerun. Taiwanese tech startup Bitmark has started an NFT-like program to give rights and royalties to music producers around the world. And artists who join NFT-based social media sites, like Friends With Benefits, receive fractional ownership in the platform and can receive direct compensation for the work they create through the network, in sharp contrast to existing tech giants like Facebook and Instagram.

    For technology evangelists, meanwhile, the NFT frenzy is just more evidence of their long-held beliefs that cryptocurrency, and blockchain platforms more broadly, has the power to change the world in profound ways. Blockchain technology has already been implemented in attempts to make voting more secure in Utah, combat insurance fraud at Nationwide Insurance, and secure the medical data of several U.S. health care companies. Advocates say it could also help companies ensure transparency in their supply chains, streamline mutual aid efforts and reduce biases in historically racist loan-application processes.

    “The potential societal impact … is so important that we should do everything in our power to make it manageable, environmentally and otherwise,” Whitaker says. “New idealistic technologies are always really imperfect in their rollout: they can have a speculative boom, and people can misuse them in unsavory ways,” she adds. “I try to stay centered on what’s possible.”

    —With reporting by Julia Zorthian

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