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Why is Apple being Investigated?

Smartphones have become an integral part of our lives. People have begun to question the wisdom of allowing just two companies to control access to billions of devices globally.

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Apple App Store

From the moment Steve Jobs unveiled the original iPhone, forever changing the way we interact with people and information, smartphones have become an integral part of our lives. We use them in every aspect of our lives, from communication and entertainment to health and fitness. It is of little wonder then, that people have begun to question the wisdom of allowing just two companies to control access to billions of devices globally, with the European Commission (EC) today announcing charges against Apple over concerns of its App store rules, just a week after a hearing before Congress on similar concerns.

While Apple’s iOS only has a 27% share of the global mobile devices market, compared to the dominant 72% that Google’s Android commands, the media, app developers, competitors and even governments tend to focus on the Apple App Store when it comes to Anti-Trust, sometimes also mentioning Google’s Play Store. You might think this is because Google allows Android users to download apps from other stores or even directly, known as side-loading, but actually there is a bigger reason – money. In 2020, iOS App Store revenue was almost double that of the Google Play Store, making it much more lucrative. So, lawsuits and Anti-Trust investigations have all the more reason to go after Apple.

Epic Battle

For those of you wondering about Epic’s battle with Apple over the ban of Fortnite, that particular case is a bit more clear cut, as Epic deliberately broke App Store rules by adding its own in-app payment system, specifically to prompt Apple and Google to ban the game, thereby enabling them to go to court. Epic doesn’t want to pay Apple the 30% commission and perhaps also wants more access to customer data. Interestingly, Epic happily pays Sony and Microsoft the same 30% commission for the same games on Playstation and Xbox consoles, but argues that the relationship is different.

A better example is Spotify who are mostly pushing for an equal footing with Apple Music. They filed a complaint with the European Commission in 2019, arguing that Apple “purposely limit choice and stifle innovation at the expense of the user experience”. But more on them later.

Changing Landscape

Apple App Store 3

The contentious 30% commission was welcomed by many developers and the industry in general back in 2008 when the App Store was launched, given that it better reflected the cost of providing the digital service rather than the 55%+ taken by brick-and-mortar stores at the time. But since then, the model and dynamic of apps has changed significantly, with users less accepting of apps that charge an upfront price to purchase. In-App purchases are now the norm, as developers, particularly game publishers, have cottoned onto the fact that consumers, while reluctant to pay for an app, will happily keep paying for benefits and perks within it, once they are hooked.

When Apple introduced its own In-App Purchase system in 2009 and subscriptions in 2011, it brought that same 30% commission for them, although the latter goes down to 15% after the first year now. This poses several complicated problems. The first problem is that commission for services that are themselves commission-based, effectively compound the percentage the actual content-creator is paying. One example is the super-chats feature on YouTube, which itself takes a 30% cut, meaning the actual YouTuber is paying a total commission of 49%, so they only see half the money the user paid. But for apps that aren’t owned by large corporations, 30% off the top of the net sale price can be a genuine blocker, especially for businesses that are themselves a middleman. If your margins are less than 30% in the first place, the App Store simply isn’t an option and therefore, you effectively cannot address one of the most important consumer markets on the planet.

Questionable Terms

There are many terms and conditions every App developer must adhere to, but one of the most questionable ones prohibit them from even acknowledging the ability to pay or subscribe somewhere else, such as their own website. It is for this reason that the Netflix app only has an option for sign-in and no registration or clue as to how a user can gain access to the service. When Apple states time and time again that its own In-App purchase system is the best and most convenient way for customers to pay, it seems indefensible and to many, anti-competitive, that apps cannot so much as direct users to their own websites. This is one area that is difficult for Apple to argue on, but it continues to try, as allowing this would see many of the larger, more lucrative companies to do just that.

Which brings us to an important point. Most of the revenue from the App Store comes from In-App purchases and subscriptions from a relatively small number of large companies. A quick look at the highest grossing apps shows apps like YouTube, Disney+, Call of Duty and other such apps from big corporations consistently featuring in the top 20 and this is why Apple was able to introduce a lower 15% rate last year for App Store developers that make less than $1 million per year from app sales.

Why Not Just Open Up the Platform?

For those unfamiliar with how the internet and digital goods are actually delivered, it might seem like Apple, with its hundreds of billions of dollars from expensive phones and computers, could just provide the App Store as an open platform. After all, the App Store accounts for less than a fifth of Apple’s revenue. However, the reality is that, while it certainly doesn’t cost anywhere near as much as it makes from the App Store to run it, there are still significant expenses. Apple runs its own data centres, which are incredibly costly to build and run and even if it didn’t, it would likely pay even more to someone like Amazon to use theirs. Then there are the people, from the submission teams delivering a 2-day turnaround on what Apple says are over 100,000 submissions a week, to the developers that build and maintain the Apps and tools such as Xcode, Apple Store Connect and of course, the App Store apps themselves, as well as the curators, security teams, etc. Opening up the platform or even allowing apps to be side-loaded would open up a maelstrom of malware. Hence, Providing this platform is not a small task.

Clearly, these platforms do provide an invaluable service that could not realistically be replicated by smaller (but still big) companies with the same level of convenience. The same can be said of features Apple includes in its products that have been called out as anti-competitive. Tile for example, has been arguing that Apple’s new AirTags, announced last week, have an unfair advantage with the use of the Ultra Wide-Band (UWB) chip that enables tracking with incredible accuracy, as well as tight integration with the built-in FindMy app. Apple says it cannot completely open up the UWB chip due to privacy concerns, which sounds plausible, given the accuracy with which it can track devices. 

The iPhone maker does have a program for third-parties to use the UWB chip with FindMy integration, but of course, with conditions attached, to certify that products meet privacy and other standards. It’s worth noting that AirTags were actually ready over a year ago, but Apple waited until the partner program and functionality was ready before releasing them. Tile hasn’t signed up to the program, as it has built its own ecosystem around its products and its own app. But the fact is, the UWB features wouldn’t exist if Apple hadn’t developed them around a product, as not only would they have no reason to spend the substantial amount of money required for R&D, it wouldn’t be as good without AirTags to focus development of the technology.

Home Advantage

On any platform, the holder will always have an advantage, but it is the extent of that advantage that is the real issue. The biggest issue Apple faces is the perception of many users that any performance or usability issues are down to the device maker or platform holder, some even think Apple makes all the apps in the App Store. Apple not offering default apps for things like web browsing, email, music and maps simply isn’t a viable option, as it would cause confusion for a large proportion of its billion active users. Providing a selection for each category during setup would not only make the already long setup process significantly longer, it will also beg the question of which apps would be included in the selection and who would decide?

Apple has been slowly adding support for changing default apps, enabling app developers to include themselves as an option for the default in a given category once the user has downloaded it. Which brings us back to Spotify, who have long argued that Apple’s default Music app puts them at a huge disadvantage. But simply having the choice to make Spotify the default music app on a user’s device doesn’t take away that home advantage. The Music app is still the default app when you buy the device. Perhaps Spotify’s biggest issue though, is how the Apple Music streaming service, a direct competitor to Spotify, is pushed heavily in the default Music app, with the app now more focussed on the streaming service than a user’s own library. Spotify has also alleged that Apple tried to get Spotify to shut down their free, ad-supported tier. Having a default Music app makes sense, but does using it to push Apple Music so heavily abuse its home advantage? The European Commission believes it does.

Government Intervention

Apple App Store 2

The EC has just announced it is issuing ‘charges against Apple over concerns that the rules it sets for developers on its App store break EU law’. Last week, Apple and Google, along with competitors Spotify, Tile and Match.com owners IAC, testified at an anti-trust hearing before a US Congress committee. In addition to the issues we’ve already touched on, there was also discussion around ‘exclusionary conduct’, with Apple particularly accused of refusing to negotiate with Tile, as well as the platform holders’ tendency to incorporate features from other companies into its own products or ‘Copy and Kill’ as one US Senator put it. 

Google’s representative said they value relationships with all their App Store ‘partners’ including the ‘small, but vocal set of primarily large companies’, referring to those testifying at the hearing and others like them. This is actually an interesting point, as the effect on consumers may well be negative depending on the actions these government bodies eventually take. Apple’s do-it-all ecosystem is one of the primary reasons many users buy Apple products and making any part of that disjointed could have severe implications for the platform, potentially making it even more difficult for actual small and independent app developers to reach users. There are so many issues and questions we just don’t have an answer to and Governments must decide how far they are willing to go. Should companies be judged differently once they reach a certain size? What is that size and how should it be measured?

Not Black and White

Even less clear cut is the issue of user data and access to it, as clearly it is a huge issue for many businesses which are unable to identify key attributes they need, but conversely many users would prefer to keep that data in as few places as possible. A middle-ground might be to give users more specific controls around which apps can see which data, but this starts to get very messy and the majority of users wouldn’t have a clear understanding of what they are allowing.

Capitalism is a game that is rarely won, but when it is, governments grapple with conflicting principles, a free-market economy or the appearance of open competition and a “level playing field”. Apple and Google’s App Stores can only exist in their present, convenient form because of the whole package, a synergy resulting from different areas of their respective businesses working together. But that convenience comes at a price and the holder of any given platform will always have some sort of advantage. The question for governments and society as a whole, is what is more important – accessibility of features and services to all, or the freedom of large companies to compete on an even keel?

But in the lawsuits, investigations and hearings, the consumer is forgotten in all but name. The real question is, would addressing some or all of these problems with the App Stores that Apple and Google provide, result in a better or worse experience for users? Having a single storefront for all apps available for a device is undoubtedly more convenient and few would argue that should change. But conditions such as those preventing app developers from enabling users to pay or subscribe on their own websites need to be looked at by governments, as only they can mandate change in this area and the financial incentives mean that companies won’t do it on their own. Governments must focus on the consumer perspective and not fall into the trap of seeing large corporations with hundreds of millions of users as their primary responsibility. This is only the beginning of a process that will literally shape the everyday lives of billions. Make no mistake, this is one of the biggest issues of our time.

All views expressed in this editorial are solely that of the author, and are not expressed on behalf of The Analyst, its affiliates, or staff.

Extremism

Kiwi Farms: Far right extremist website blocked over harassment

Kiwi Farms, an internet forum that facilitates online discussion and harassment particularly of neurodiverse and trans personalities, came under scrutiny for doxing people.

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Earlier this month Kiwi Farms, an internet forum that facilitates online discussion and harassment particularly of neurodiverse and trans personalities, came under scrutiny for doxing people. Notably it targeted a trans Twitch streamer, Clara Sorrenti who as a result had to flee the country. At first, the content delivery network Cloudflare, refused to stop providing its services. However, after a while, on 3rd September Cloudflare stopped protecting the website.

Sorrenti was just one of the victims of this far-right website that caused at least three suicides. Kiwi Farms was launched in 2009 as CWCki dedicated to referencing the online presence of Christine Weston Chandler aka Chris Chan aka Sonichu.  It officially changed its name in 2015 and soon gained a lot of popularity. The format of the website is simple – identify a victim, label them a “lolcow” – an online slang term for someone who can be exploited and made fun out of – and then stalk them to the point of harassment.

Some recent victims of the trolling website:

The far-right Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene became a target of this website when she became a victim of a swatting incident. In this, a fake call was made to the authorities to bring them to her house in August of this year.  

A caller connected to Kiwi Farms called police officers and told them that a man was shot five times in a bathtub at the address of Greene. According to the police report, the police later received a computer-generated call that stated she was targeted because of her stance on “transgender youth’s rights.”

In response, Greene stated: “There should be no business or any kind of service where you can target your enemy. That’s absolutely absurd.”

In late August, there was a bomb threat at the Boston Children’s Hospital after which they had to contact the authorities. The threat was anonymous but luckily no bomb was found.  The hospital was attacked for providing gender-affirming hysterectomies to children. The bomb threat resulted after a week-long cyber-attack on the hospital as one statement read:

“(the hospital) has been the target of a large volume of hostile internet activity, phone calls, and harassing emails including threats of violence toward our clinicians and staff. We are deeply concerned by these attacks on our clinicians and staff fueled by misinformation and a lack of understanding and respect for our transgender community.”

Children’s National Hospital in Washington DC was also subjected to similar harassment for the same reasons. As a result, the hospital had to release a statement.

The Trevor Project’s Hotline is meant to help LGBTQ+ kids who are battling suicidal thoughts. The users of Kiwi Farms tried to clog up the hotline with fake calls in late August so that the real kids could not access it.  They failed to succeed but the Kiwi Farms website was filled with users proud of what they had done.

The most recent victim was Clare Sorrenti who opened the door to a barrel of a gun pointing at her face on September 5th. The police were called to her house by Kiwi Farm users in a swatting incident after months-long harassment.

She was accused of sending violent emails to local politicians which led to her being arrested temporarily. As a result, she and her fiancé moved to a local hotel only to be doxed again after the users found the hotel by a picture that she posted of her cat sitting on the bed.

Realizing the severity of the situation, she moved to Northern Island to evade the stalking and harassment. However, the users again found her in no time and hacked her family members’ mobile phones. This stalking was made worse because she fought back instead of backing down and crowdfunded around $100,000 to “seek justice and make sure something like this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

She also created a trending Twitter hashtag “#DropKiwiFarms” which was joined by her fans as well as the Anti-Defamation League.

Interference of Cloudflare

Cloudflare is a company that provides security by warding off DDoS attacks and keeping hackers at bay. The company has been under scrutiny for protecting Kiwi Farms but this is not the only controversial website they provided security to. The company also protected the Daily Stormer and 8chan, both websites that were closed down.  

Without Cloudflare, the website could be attacked by hackers and shut down before it leads to a bigger incident. The company refused to stop providing services to this controversial website by stating:

“Just as the telephone company doesn’t terminate your line if you say awful, racist, bigoted things, we have concluded in consultation with politicians, policymakers, and experts that turning off security services because we think what you publish is despicable is the wrong policy.”

A while later, on September 4th, the company did decide to terminate its services to Kiwi Farms for “unprecedented emergency and immediate threat to human life”.

However, similar sites that are dedicated to doxing people still exist such as The Lolcow.farm imageboard which has been around since at least 2014, and the Pretty Ugly Little Liar forum which started in 2015 and still exists.

All views expressed in this editorial are solely that of the author, and are not expressed on behalf of The Analyst, its affiliates, or staff.

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Daily Brief

Google Fires Blake Lemoine for Making Public Claims Regarding AI Technology 

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Artificial Intelligence AI Machine Learning 30212411048
  • Recently, Google fired Blake Lemoine, a software engineer for Google, who claimed that Lamda had a sentient mind.
  • Google along with many AI experts denied his claims and public speeches, stating that he violated employment and security policies.
  • Blake started making headlines about how Lamda, one of Google’s chat boxes, began displaying human-like awareness through holding conversations on subjective matters 
  • Many AI engineers made these public claims before Mr. Lemoine, proposing their theory that AI technology is becoming more sentient.

All views expressed in this editorial are solely that of the author, and are not expressed on behalf of The Analyst, its affiliates, or staff.

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Daily Brief

SumOfUs’s Researcher’s Avatar Sexually Assaulted in Horizon World’s Game

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Brelyon metaverse desk scaled
  • In Meta’s virtual reality platform, Horizon Worlds, the avatar of a 21-year old SumOfUs researcher was sexually assaulted. 
  • Meta confirms that it has set up safety tools in Horizon Worlds in order to prevent negative experiences, especially since there were earlier reports of virtual assaults and inappropriate behavior in February. 
  • One of the safeguards introduced was Personal Boundary, which prevents any avatars from coming within a set distance of 4 feet of each other in order to respect the avatar’s personal space. The company also offers other ways in order to block and report users as well.
  • Nevertheless, SumOfUS reported that the researcher was “encouraged” to disable the Personal Boundary feature, and was approached by 2 male avatars in a room, one of whom was observing and the other got fairly close to her. She also witnessed lewd comments, homophobic slurs, and virtual gun violence. 
  • SumOfUs has filed a resolution with some of the shareholders, requesting a risk assessment of the human rights impacts in the metaverse. A shareholder meeting is set to be held on Wednesday. 
  • SumOfUs’s campaigns director Vicky Wyatt stated, “Let’s not repeat and replicate [real-world issues] in the metaverse. We need a better plan here on how to mitigate online harms in the metaverse”.

All views expressed in this editorial are solely that of the author, and are not expressed on behalf of The Analyst, its affiliates, or staff.

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Politics

Digital Authoritarianism – A Growing Challenge to The World Press Freedom

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Digital authoritarianism – a growing challenge to the world press freedom

Press and electronic media have been an active source of propagation of the discourse be it political, social, or religious. They make it easier for a piece of information to reach the common masses and thus it is crucial for the governments to control them to keep insuring the creation of “us” and “them” division in the society.  But this control has become a challenge for a free and independent press. Digital authoritarianism, cyber surveillance, and monitoring of political and social activities of people through media have made it difficult for the people of the present age and time to have freely expressed their opinion and easier for the governments to control the information.

While China has been controlling the influx of information and the regulation of ideologies in the country through a great fire, Other countries are joining in too with their measure to increase cyber-surveillance. Internet shutdowns are one of the tools for asserting digital authoritarianism and according to a survey conducted by a non-profit digital rights organization Access now, the year 2021 experienced 182 events of Internet shutdowns around the world.

The shutdowns measures were taken to contribute to the growing political tensions in the respective regions for example, during the coup in Maynmar, and to influence the geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe, specifically Russia. Similarly, while Africa experienced an epidemic of coups in the year 2021, the number of internet shutdowns reached 19.

 India which claims to be the “world’s largest democracy” imposed an internet shutdown more than a hundred times in the year 2021 and more than half of them were on the already repressed people of Jammu and Kashmir.

While Russia became the only country in Europe to impose an internet shutdown in 2021, in the year 2022, the Russia and Ukraine war has forced other EU countries to ban the access to Russia Today, Sputnik other information sites regulated by Russia calling it a measure against “the war propaganda.” Similarly, since the beginning of the conflict, Russia has imposed new internet laws in the country to monitor the spread of news restricting the use of global applications like Instagram and Facebook.  

The more recent rerouting of the internet traffic of occupied Ukrainian regions to be redirected through Russian cyber routes. Netblocks, an internet observatory, noted that: “Connectivity on the network has been routed via Russia’s internet instead of Ukrainian telecoms infrastructure and is hence likely now subject to Russian internet regulations, surveillance, and censorship.”

However, while countries around the world are being exposed to exerting digital dominance, and being accused to collect user data for their own benefit, it is becoming a challenge for them to create “democracy-affirming technologies” to combat the digital authoritarianism that has been challenging the world’s press freedom around the world.

All views expressed in this editorial are solely that of the author, and are not expressed on behalf of The Analyst, its affiliates, or staff.

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Society

Sexualized Child Images “Meet Community Guidelines” on Instagram

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Instagram Face

Instagram has come under a lot of heat, and rightly so, for not removing accounts that showed pictures of children in swimwear or partial clothing attracting loads of sexualized comments even after such accounts were reported via the in-app reporting tool. 

The above-mentioned tool allows users to flag accounts that have suspicious activity which is then reviewed by the system’s automated moderation technology, which in this case ruled such concerning accounts as “acceptable” and conforming to “community guidelines” resulting in such accounts remaining live.

An independent researcher challenged this and reported one such concerning account to Instagram using the in-app reporting tool, only to be met with a response tagged with a phrase many of us a too familiar with i.e., “due to the high volume of reports” submitted it can not view the report but the “(automated) technology has found that this account probably doesn’t go against our community guidelines”. The said account, with more than 33,000 followers remained live the whole day.

All this while Instagram’s parent company, Meta, as do other social media companies claims an approach that has zero tolerance towards child exploitation – claims that remain unsubstantiated by their actions/policies.

Instagram is not alone in failing to effectively handle this issue. Twitter has many similar accounts often known as “tribute pages”. This is evident from the example of this one account which was ruled not to be breaking twitter’s rules after being reported through the in-app reporting tool despite posting pictures of a man performing sexual acts with images of a 14-year-old TikTok underage influencer. Other tweets from the same account reading “looking to trade some younger stuff” were also seemingly not concerning enough, until it was publicly called out by a campaign group ‘Collective Shout’ at which point the account was taken down.

Should such accounts suspicious of illegal activity and clearly harmful be allowed to remain live only because they do not meet a criminal threshold, yet?

Are “Zero tolerance” claims consistent with companies allowing the content that is a threat to children to remain live despite being reported, let alone proactively moderate content?

Should the social media companies be relying on automated detections for preventing the serious risk of sexualization, harassment and exploitation of our children when such technologies have been known to have failed miserably for even keeping up with simple hate speech?

All views expressed in this editorial are solely that of the author, and are not expressed on behalf of The Analyst, its affiliates, or staff.

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Health

Tired of Carrying a Wallet? Have Your Credit Card Microchipped Under Your Skin

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Dr Mark Gasson has an RFID microchip implanted in his left hand by a surgeon March 16 2009 1 scaled

Walletmor, a British-Polish startup, claims to have created the first implantable microchip that can be used at any contactless payment machine around the world. Walletmor has sold over 500 microchips that are slightly bigger than a grain of rice and weigh less than one gram. Each microchip goes for £199 and can be sewn in by professionals at any aesthetics clinic. 

Walletmor claims that the microchip is entirely safe and has received regulatory approval. Once implanted, the microchip is ready to use and will not shift from its place. The microchip requires no batteries or an external power source to function. The implantable capsule is made of biocompatible material and consists of a microprocessor for storing encrypted payment data and a proximity antenna to connect to nearby payment terminals. 

The founder of Walletmor, Wojciech Paprota claims that the microchips are impossible to hack stating, “our payment implant cannot be forgotten or lost. This means that, unlike a standard payment card, it cannot end up in the wrong hands. It will not fall out of our wallet, and no one will take it from there. The implant cannot be scanned, photographed or hacked.” 

At the moment, the microchip connects to a mobile app called ICard, where a user can refill funds for contactless payments. 

Paprota believes that credit card implants will one day be as popular as regular payment cards and that Walletmor’s long-term goal is to provide more functionalities to their chip such as identification and key card access capabilities. 

But before microchip implants can be widely accepted, Paprota and other emerging microchip-based companies must first assure citizens of their safety. Though implanted microchips are convenient for day-to-day tasks, many fear that as technology continues to advance, a person’s data and specific location can potentially be hacked causing safety concerns. 

Nada Kakabadse, a Professor of Ethics at Reading University questioned the ethics behind getting microchips implanted. Kakabadse stated, “there is a dark side to the technology that has a potential for abuse…to those with no love of individual freedom, it opens up seductive new vistas for control, manipulation and oppression.. And who owns the data? Who has access to the data? And, is it ethical to chip people like we do pets?”

So the question arises, how much are we willing to risk for the sake of convenience?

All views expressed in this editorial are solely that of the author, and are not expressed on behalf of The Analyst, its affiliates, or staff.

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Born and raised in the Bay Area, California, Faiza is a mother of two with a degree in Psychology and Paralegal Studies. She is passionate about lending her voice to those who are disadvantaged.

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