Apple’s antitrust issues could be just beginning

Today was Apple Day, the charmed 24-hour period in which enough traffic is printed by curious would-be iPhone buyers to cover the cost of several staff salaries. There was a new watch, a new iPad, and several new phones, in multiple new colors. iPhone sales may be on the decline, and antitrust concerns are mounting, but from a business perspective Apple is still quite healthy.

Whether by coincidence or not, Apple Day happened to be a slow one for the old platforms-and-democracy beat. It was as if policymakers, academics, and Apple’s competitors all laid down their swords to compare cameras between the iPhone 11 and the iPhone 11 Pro. (It is just as possible that policymakers still had their swords drawn, but all available reporters were busy debating whether a three-camera array could trigger trypophobia.)

But expect them to pick up their swords again soon. In The Washington Post, Cat Zakrzewski explores three ways Apple has become vulnerable to antitrust action.

Lawmakers have noticed. “Apple’s App Store is one of the dominant platforms for app makers, and they’ve got too much power to stifle competition and promote their own products,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) tweeted today, linking to the Times story. “That’s not right— and it’s why I’ve got a plan to #BreakUpBigTech.”

Meanwhile, Apple could face a different threat from the Federal Trade Commission. After announcing a $170 million settlement with YouTube related to violations of children’s privacy, the FTC said they plan to investigate tech companies’ collection and usage of audio recordings. Richard Nieva and Ben Fox Rubin report at CNET:

Smith said the agency already has policies regarding voice commands, such as those a child would give to an internet-connected toy. It’s fine for devices to record the voice queries of children without parental consent, but only if the files are deleted “as soon as practicable afterwards,” Smith said. The FTC addressed children’s voice recordings in depth two years ago when it released a new policy enforcement statement for COPPA. […]

At the press conference, Smith didn’t mention any tech giants by name, and the FTC didn’t respond to a request for additional comment about its review of voice commands. But when you think of voice technology, no products have had as much influence as Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant and Apple’s Siri. All those services have apps and content aimed at kids, including the ability to have the software tell you G-rated jokes.

That announcement came just a few days after Apple apologized for secretly using human contractors to listen to recordings of customers talking to Siri to improve it. Apple wasn’t the only company to do this — Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft have all been caught doing it too — but no other company has patted itself on the back as hard for protecting consumers’ privacy than Apple has.

For Apple, it’s a formidable set of issues to confront — and one that the company, which has led a relatively charmed life from the standpoint of public perception for the past decade, may not be entirely prepared for. The company seems well suited to weather any storms that may be coming its way from the FTC, but the anticipation must be miserable.

While we wait, the new iPhones really are quite nice. I’m planning to get the iPhone 11 Pro in green, myself.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of tech platforms.

⬆️ Trending up: Facebook is tightening its policies on self-harm and suicide-related content across both Facebook and Instagram.

Trending sideways: Worried about upcoming changes to Android and iOS that will regularly inform users of how often apps check their location, Facebook posted an explainer on how it uses location data. But while the post was designed to reassure users that “you’re in control,” it also said Facebook will obtain users’ location whether they enable location services on their phone or not.

Governing

A federal appeals court rejected LinkedIn’s effort to stop a San Francisco company from scraping information from user profiles. On one hand, this could let bad actors hoover up enormous swathes of data without users’ explicit consent. On the other, it could enable researchers and journalists to better understand the platforms. Here’s Jonathan Stempel for Reuters:

Circuit Judge Marsha Berzon said hiQ, which makes software to help employers determine whether employees will stay or quit, showed it faced irreparable harm absent an injunction because it might go out of business without access.

She also said giving companies such as LinkedIn “free rein” over who can use public user data risked creating “information monopolies” that harm the public interest.

“LinkedIn has no protected property interest in the data contributed by its users, as the users retain ownership over their profiles,” Berzon wrote. “And as to the publicly available profiles, the users quite evidently intend them to be accessed by others,” including prospective employers.

Facebook and Instagram terminated the official accounts of the Italian neo-fascist party CasaPound, along with the profiles of dozens of far-right activists, for hate speech. CasaPound had almost 240,000 followers on Facebook. (Lorenzo Tondo / The Guardian)

One of the most popular child YouTubers, Ryan ToysReview, has been accused of tricking preschoolers into watching ads. The complaint, filed with the Federal Trade Commission, argues that 8-year-old Ryan and his parents didn’t adequately disclose sponsored content. (Stephanie McNeal / BuzzFeed)

Newspaper executives met with lawmakers today to lobby Congress for an exemption to antitrust law. The group is rallying support for News Media Alliance’s anti-trust safe harbor bill, which would allow them to team up and negotiate with Facebook and Google as a unit. (Sara Fischer / Axios)

Ex-Twitter CEO Dick Costolo says social media platforms should create tiers of accounts in order to improve public conversations. Costolo suggested barring accounts that have no avatars or phone numbers from replying to tweets, for example. (Kevin Stankiewicz / CNBC)

Microsoft President Brad Smith says the tech sector needs to face up to responsibility and embrace regulation. Smith also discussed his new book, “Tools & Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age,” on Recode Decode. (Todd Bishop / GeekWire)

Outrage over President Trump tweeting misinformation about Hurricane Dorian. In an email, NOAA chief scientist Craig McLean reprimanded staff for sending a press release backing up the president’s false claims that Dorian could hit Alabama. (Justine Calma / The Verge)

Margrethe Vestager, who made a name for herself as the European Union antitrust chief by cracking down on Apple and Google, was just named EU executive vice president in charge of digital affairs. In her new role, she’ll oversee issues relating to artificial intelligence, big data, innovation and cybersecurity. (Aoife White and Natalia Drozdiak / Bloomberg)

Industry

Researchers are studying public posts on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram to develop health intervention techniques. Scientists are using the practice, known as digital phenotyping, “to create algorithms that might detect HIV, obesity, Parkinson’s disease, and suicide risk,” reports Sidney Fussell at The Atlantic. But there are privacy risks to consider:

Using video analysis to study atypical behaviors associated with autism dates back to at least 2005. More recently, researchers have hoped that with enough training data, machine-learning tools might notice the same things a pediatrician would: Does the child respond to a parent calling his name? Can the child easily shift her focus from one object to another? By quantifying these responses, algorithms could learn to pick up patterns from uploaded videos. A 2018 autism behavioral study, for example, used YouTube videos and wearables to classify typical and atypical movements. A decade ago, researchers relied on home videos to train their algorithms. Now the social-media age offers enormous amounts of potential training data.

But Matthew Bietz, a bioethicist at UC Irvine, argues that the abundance of readily accessible data can obscure the potential privacy risks of scraping sites such as YouTube for research. “I think sometimes these [AI studies] are being driven by the people with the tools and not the people with the problem,” he says.

Google and Facebook have invested heavily in “lite” apps for the Indian market, but the weak ad market suggests they might not recoup their investment. (Juro Osawa, Shai Oster / The Information)

Snapchat is launching a dedicated news channel specifically for the 2020 debates. The “Democratic Primary Debate Channel” will go live on September 12th. The company is pushing candidates to embrace the platform as a way of reaching younger voters. (Sara Fischer / Axios)

Snapchat and Instagram experienced outages on Monday, with users unable to send chats. (Corinne Reichert / CNET)

Milo Yiannopoulos has been telling fans on Telegram he’s broke, after being de-platformed from Twitter and Facebook earlier this year. It’s the latest sign that de-platforming can be effective in blunting the social impact of bad actor. (David Uberti / Vice)

And finally …

Russia accuses Facebook And Google of illegal election interference

Well, you know what they say about turnabout being fair play. Although I’m not quite sure this counts as turnabout. From Zak Doffman:

These new allegations relate to the running of political ads on voting day—September 8, despite, the regulator says, warnings that such action would break the country’s election laws. “During the monitoring of mass media on voting day, on Google’s search engine, on Facebook and on YouTube, political advertising was established.”

Roskomnadzor claims the actions of the U.S. giants “can be considered as interference in the sovereign affairs of Russia and obstructing the holding of democratic elections in the Russian Federation.” Ironic pause. “Such actions by foreign actors,” it says, “are unacceptable.”

Fair point, Russia. We’re going to hold you to that.

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