Issue 105

Not-so fundamental rights

Delivered on 22 March 2021 by Justin Pyvis. About a 4 min read.

Oh, those Germans:

The German government Wednesday agreed to allow secret services to listen in on conversations via encrypted messaging services such as Messenger or Whatsapp as a means of tackling terrorism.

This is happening in, of all places, the home of digital privacy regulation – the European Union! It turns out that an "individuals' fundamental rights and freedoms, particularly their right to protection of their personal data", are not so fundamental after all.

Hypocrisy aside, this is yet another reason not to use any 'encrypted' service that isn't open source, such as WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. They may well be encrypted but you can never be sure the cryptographic keys haven't been handed over to some authority, somewhere. If there's a backdoor it also means there's a vulnerability: it's only a matter of time before some bureaucrat is socially engineered or simply throws out an old computer with the keys on it.

Google's privacy theatre

Google plans to phase out cookies. No, not the delicious dessert but third-party tracking 'cookies' collected by an individual's browser. Fewer cookies means less tracking which means more privacy... which is good, right? Wrong:

For years, Google has been gradually scaling back its use of tracking cookies, announcing earlier this month that it will not establish an alternate system for tracking users on the web. But critics of the company — including the Electronic Frontier Foundation — have criticized those efforts as self-serving.

As usual, the 'do no evil' company has ulterior motives. Cookies are usable by anyone and serve an important purpose, such as helping you stay signed into websites or tracking referrals. Instead of using cookies to track people, Google will now do it directly in Chrome, making advertisers even more dependent on Google.

You see, its internet browser – Chrome – has a dominant market share close to 65%:

Global market share held by leading internet browsers

Moving away from cookies will hurt Google's competitors far more than Google itself. It's a self-serving move dressed up as altruism. If you use Chrome, consider switching to Firefox (with the uBlock Origin add-on)!

The Clubhouse fad

You may have heard of the latest craze in Silicon Valley, Clubhouse:

Clubhouse is a new type of social network based on voice—where people around the world come together to talk, listen and learn from each other in real-time.

Backed by big hitting venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), Clubhouse quickly attracted the who's who of celebrity life, including Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and even Oprah. It's still invite-only – what fad isn't? – but since day one I've had concerns about its potential longevity.

For instance, celebrities are busy and their time is not cheap. Are they really going to deliver live content day-in, day-out, once the 'new kid on the block' effect wanes? Throw in some Facebook-level privacy issues and it went straight into my scrap heap.

Building on that concern, Shaan Puri recently stormed a long twitter thread hypothesising about how Clubhouse might evolve (do read the whole thing). The oft-made comparisons to Twitch – a live game streaming service – were particularly interesting, as the comparisons are flawed:

1 - twitch creators are live ~40 hours a week. Our best creators do weekly shows. ~3-4 hrs a week max. The game makes content creation easier

2 - Twitch is vertically focused (gaming). Clubhouse is horizontal.  You need "great content" across EVERY category.

3 - On Clubhouse, if you join a convo 45 minutes late, you missed the best talking points and might be lost.   But with Twitch, the "game stores the context". No matter when I join, I look at the game and I know what the player is doing.  So it's "live" but not "urgent".

Puri predicts Clubhouse will evolve into a place to "chill", essentially a "Discord for Douchebags". No thanks.

Huawei, patent troll

With its hardware now banned in many parts of the world, Huawei is pivoting into patent royalties:

Huawei Technologies Co. will begin charging mobile giants like Apple Inc. a “reasonable” fee for access to its trove of wireless 5G patents, potentially creating a lucrative revenue source by showcasing its global lead in next-generation networking.
Huawei will be flexible in negotiating rates on different 5G products -- everything from water meters to smart cars, according to Ding. “One thing for certain is that the $2.50 cap is set on smartphones,” he said.

Huawei's smartphone market share fell from around 20% at the start of 2020 to below 10% by the end of the year, following pressure from the United States to ban phones and other hardware made by the company as part of its trade dispute with China. The company had to do something, and that appears to be a doubling down on research and development – and the potentially lucrative royalties that may entail.

The stated goal of the trade war was national security. In reality, it was a revival of long-discredited mercantilism thinking to bring manufacturing back to the United States – 'Make America Great Again'. It achieved neither: the United States' trade deficit widened, Huawei's hardware was replaced by hardware produced by different companies (a lot in China!), and China's move towards the development of advanced technology and independence from the United States was accelerated.

The US trade deficit just keeps growing.

Issue 105: Not-so fundamental rights was compiled by Justin Pyvis and delivered on 22 March 2021.