FOXTROT/ALFA: PEPP-PT Falls Apart, More Boeing Woes, Australia to Regulate the Ad Market to Benefit Publishers and Punish Google and Facebook

A new week starts with a new issue of FOXTROT/ALFA. And I’m writing this thing on a new keyboard, no less. There are few feelings that feel as good to a professional writer as breaking in a new keyboard, let me tell you. Anyway, I’m writing this newsletter for the 104th time today. It is Monday, 20 April 2020 and here are all the tech news you need to know about today.

To Contact Trace or Not to Contact Trace?

Even though absolutely everyone seems to agree that we need a Coronavirus contact tracing app, cracks are starting to emerge in Europe when it comes to the actual implementation of such an app. There’s trouble in PEPP-PT land.

European efforts to define a contact-tracing protocol aimed at making it easier for authorities to detect cases of COVID-19 appear to be having a rather vivid disagreement. One of the efforts is the Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) group, a Germany-based effort to develop a contact-tracing protocol. The other is the Decentralized Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing protocol, DP-3T, a Switzerland-based effort.

The Register has received correspondence from a DP-3T developer describing PEPP-PT as “a horrible privacy-invasive solution”. At least two PEPP-PT participants are worried enough about it to have withdrawn from the effort. Possible reasons for the discomfort, as outlined by cryptography researcher Nadim Kobeissi, are that PEPP-PT is yet to reveal substantial details of its proposed scheme, appears not to have many truly active participants and advocates centralised access to some data.

But a PEPP-PT partner, France’s National Institute for Research in Digital Science and Technology Inria has popped up a brief paper that says the whole decentralised distribution of information about who has COVID-19 has more downsides than centralised control of that data in the hands of health authorities. Inria’s even given its plans a new acronym to remember: the ROBust and privacy-presERving proximity Tracing protocol &ndash: aka ROBERT.

Meanwhile, a lot of academics have signed an open letter that warns of the dangers of such apps in general.

Hundreds of academics have warned governments around the world not to commission coronavirus contact-tracing apps that collect and store personal data on entire countries' populations. Published today, the open letter has been signed by professors from 26 countries and urges governments to think about the dangers of building pools of data revealing precisely who you meet, when and where.

Referring to other countries' experiments with contact-tracing apps as a way of halting the spread of the infection, the academics said: “Though the effectiveness of contact tracing apps is controversial, we need to ensure that those implemented preserve the privacy of their users, thus safeguarding against many other issues.”

I am working on a very in-depth podcast episode for The Private Citizen that should explain this whole mess in detail. Look for it in your podcatcher some time this week. I’ll try to get it out as soon as possible. This topic is an extremely fast moving target at the moment that makes thorough research a very tricky proposition.

More Trouble for Boeing

…no seriously. I’m not making this up!

Operators of various Boeing aircraft types including the 787 and 777 are being warned of misleading pitch guidance during glideslope interference on ILS approaches. The US FAA is cautioning pilots over the use of autopilot flight-director systems for the twinjets – as well as the 747-400, 747-8, 757 and 767 – under such circumstances.

It states that Boeing and relevant suppliers are working on software updates intended to correct possible “erroneous” guidance arising from glideslope “anomalies” during ILS approaches. The AFDS packages the crew’s mode-control panel interface with the aircraft’s autopilot flight-director computers. If crews follow misleading information from the AFDS after disengaging the autopilot, the aircraft could potentially enter “dangerously steep” approaches – potentially preceding a short landing – or an unusually long approach resulting in a late touchdown, says the FAA. It states that such deceptive information relating to pitch guidance has affected a number of aircraft when capturing or tracking the glideslope, according to operator in-service reports received.

I’m being told by people who have flown similar aircraft that this isn’t as bad as it sounds. Still, it continues an extremely worrying trend of Boeing planes not doing what they are supposed to do in a number of different circumstances.

Tor is Laying Off 13 Employees

Apparently the Tor Project is cutting staff because of the ‘rona. I didn’t even know they had significant staff.

Tor, like much of the world, has been caught up in the COVID-19 crisis. Like many other nonprofits and small businesses, the crisis has hit us hard, and we have had to make some difficult decisions. We had to let go of 13 great people who helped make Tor available to millions of people around the world. We will move forward with a core team of 22 people, and remain dedicated to continuing our work on Tor Browser and the Tor software ecosystem.

They do make an excellent point for their continued existence, though:

The world won’t be the same after this crisis, and the need for privacy and secure access to information will become more urgent. In these times, being online is critical and many people face ongoing obstacles to getting and sharing needed information. We are taking today’s difficult steps to ensure the Tor Project continues to exist and our technology stays available.

The Chinese Are Taking Over …the Cloud

It seems like Alibaba is trying to pull an Amazon*.

In a world so disrupted by COVID-19 that many are wondering where their next pay packet will come from, the biggest sellers of cloud tech are trying to prove who has the deepest pockets. As businesses all of a sudden see the pressing need to offer the remote working and flexibility inherent in the cloud computing, Alibaba, the Chinese ecommerce giant, has committed to spending $28bn on cloud data centres, operating systems, and hardware over the next three years.

Clearly, Alibaba sees the shift in online behaviour prompted by the virus outbreak combined with China expecting to lift lockdown restrictions earlier than western nations, as an opportunity to grow. There are only so many companies with deep enough pockets to make inroads in the market during what is expected to be a deep recession. With $56bn in revenue in 2019, Alibaba is among the lucky few. The other stragglers in the cloud market, namely Oracle, VMware and SAP, will be watching Alibaba’s investment in awe and wondering if they have enough gas left in their core markets to keep up.

* After the Dotcom Bubble burst, Amazon bought up loads of cheap fibre and infrastructure and set itself up to later launch AWS and eventually become the cloud giant it is today.

Australia to Make Google and Facebook Pay for Being Better Ad Salesmen Than the Publishers

Well, this one is interesting…

Australia will force social media companies to pay for content shared on their networks and disclose details of the algorithms that determine what their users see. The decision comes after Australia conducted a Digital Platforms Inquiry that in 2019 delivered a final report concluding that Google and Facebook have distorted local media and advertising markets in ways that make it hard for publishers to monetise their content.

Frydenberg’s action is both playing to his base and an attempt to restructure the market. The decision plays to his base because the Liberal Party of Australia of which he is a member is the nation’s conservative party. As such it is generally in favor at Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, which dominates the Australian media market. News has spent years arguing that digital giants must be reined in even as it decided to paywall its established mastheads while also operating a free-to-access volume-oriented news site. Frydenberg will not get much criticism from News Limited for this decision.

News will get some cover from the decision. The company is in trouble in Australia. Its pay television arm is bleeding and an attempt to create a Netflix-for-sport has under-performed and is now bereft of new content thanks to the novel coronavirus. The Australian, the national broadsheet that was Rupert Murdoch’s first big bet, has lost money for years. The company also recently stopped the presses on numerous local newspapers, citing revenue downturns caused by COVID-19. Now it can point to government action about internet giants as evidence its woes are not all of its own making.

Ah, so it’s the same shit Springer has been pulling in Germany: “Google is ze evil, ve must hawe ze money for ze kontent, ja!” They’re trying to protect a failing business model and cover their ass for the fact that they have failed to innovate for decades and are now reaping the rewards. And of course, going all in on scaring people of the ‘rona has just made it worse now because they suddenly discovered the ‘rona don’t pay.

The attempt to restructure the market is a reaction is more nuanced. Frydenberg points out that Google has 47 percent online advertising market share and that plenty of that derives from its stewardship of Android.

“We used to benefit from all of that and we want it back, damn it! It’s the government’s job to see to it!” Eh… no!

Left unmentioned is that Australia’s media fundamentally misunderstood the internet in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Publishers’ early online efforts focused on content distribution rather than converting their advertising operations into online properties. The likes of eBay, Google and Facebook feasted on the vacuum created as consumers realised that search-driven classified advertisements available 24x7 was a rather better experience than poring through piles of printed classified ads.

Exactly. You know, I’d be hotter on the government’s responsibility to rescue the Fourth Estate if these guys were doing a better job. But they are barely doing their job at all. The only reason I got into this shit is because it was easy to see where journalists were making mistakes and I thought I could do it better. My approach is trying to do a better job and innovate where I can, instead of asking for the government to regulate the market to bail me out. But then, what do I know. I’m just a hack paid pittance by the word.

Also Noteworthy

Some other stories I’ve been reading today:

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