Facebook fears no FTC fine

Reports emerged today that the FTC is considering a fine against Facebook that would be the largest ever from the agency. Even if it were ten times the size of the largest, a $22.5 million bill sent to Google in 2012, the company would basically laugh it off. Facebook is made of money. But the […]

Reports emerged today that the FTC is considering a fine against Facebook that would be the largest ever from the agency. Even if it were ten times the size of the largest, a $22.5 million bill sent to Google in 2012, the company would basically laugh it off. Facebook is made of money. But the FTC may make it provide something it has precious little of these days: accountability.

A Washington Post report cites sources inside the agency (currently on hiatus due to the shutdown) saying that regulators have “met to discuss imposing a record-setting fine.” We may as well say here that this must be taken with a grain of salt at the outset; that Facebook is non-compliant with terms set previously by the FTC is an established fact, so how much they should be made to pay is the natural next topic of discussion.

But how much would it be? The scale of the violation is hugely negotiable. Our summary of the FTC’s settlement requirements for Facebook indicate that it was:

  • barred from making misrepresentations about the privacy or security of consumers’ personal information;
  • required to obtain consumers’ affirmative express consent before enacting changes that override their privacy preferences;
  • required to prevent anyone from accessing a user’s material more than 30 days after the user has deleted his or her account;
  • required to establish and maintain a comprehensive privacy program designed to address privacy risks associated with the development and management of new and existing products and services, and to protect the privacy and confidentiality of consumers’ information; and
  • required, within 180 days, and every two years after that for the next 20 years, to obtain independent, third-party audits certifying that it has a privacy program in place that meets or exceeds the requirements of the FTC order, and to ensure that the privacy of consumers’ information is protected.

How many of those did it break, and how many times? Is it per user? Per account? Per post? Per offense? What is “accessing” under such and such a circumstance? The FTC is no doubt deliberating these things.

Yet it is hard to imagine them coming up with a number that really scares Facebook. A hundred million dollars is a lot of money, for instance. But Facebook took in more than $13 billion in revenue last quarter. Double that fine, triple it, and Facebook bounces back.

If even a fine ten times the size of the largest it ever threw can’t faze the target, what can the FTC do to scare Facebook into playing by the book? Make it do what it’s already supposed to be doing, but publicly.

How many ad campaigns is a user’s data being used for? How many internal and external research projects? How many copies are there? What data specifically and exactly is it collecting on any given user, how is that data stored, who has access to it, to whom is it sold or for whom is it aggregated or summarized? What is the exact nature of the privacy program it has in place, who works for it, who do they report to, and what are their monthly findings?

These and dozens of other questions come immediately to mind as things Facebook should be disclosing publicly in some way or another, either directly to users in the case of how one’s data is being used, or in a more general report, such as what concrete measures are being taken to prevent exfiltration of profile data by bad actors, or how user behavior and psychology is being estimated and tracked.

Not easy or convenient questions to answer at all, let alone publicly and regularly. But if the FTC wants the company to behave, it has to impose this level of responsibility and disclosure. Because, as Facebook has already shown, it cannot be trusted to disclose it otherwise. Light touch regulation is all well and good… until it isn’t.

This may in fact be such a major threat to Facebook’s business — imagine having to publicly state metrics that are clearly at odds with what you tell advertisers and users — that it might attempt to negotiate a larger initial fine in order to avoid punitive measures such as those outlined here. Volkswagen spent billions not on fines, but in sort of punitive community service to mitigate the effects of its emissions cheating. Facebook too could be made to shell out in this indirect way.

What the FTC is capable of requiring from Facebook is an open question, since the scale and nature of these violations are unprecedented. But whatever they come up with, the part with a dollar sign in front of it — however many places it goes to — will be the least of Facebook’s worries.

Free to play games rule the entertainment world with $88 billion in revenue

They may be free, but they sure pay. Games with no upfront cost but a plethora of other ways to make money generated a mind-blowing $88 billion in 2018 according to SuperData’s year-end report — leaving traditional games (and indeed movies and TV) in the dust. While it may not come as a surprise that […]

They may be free, but they sure pay. Games with no upfront cost but a plethora of other ways to make money generated a mind-blowing $88 billion in 2018 according to SuperData’s year-end report — leaving traditional games (and indeed movies and TV) in the dust.

While it may not come as a surprise that F2P (as free to play is often abbreviated) is big business at the end of 2018, the Year of Fortnite, the sheer size of it can hardly fail to impress.

The total gaming market, as this report measures it, amounts to a staggering $110 billion, of which more than half (about $61 billion) came from mobile, which is of course the natural home of the F2P platform.

Credit: SuperData

The $88 billion in F2P revenue across all platforms is large enough to produce a dynamite top ten and an enormously long tail. Fortnite, with its huge following and multi-platform chops, was far and away the top earner with $2.4 billion in revenue; after that is a jumble of PC, mobile, Asian and Western games of a variety of styles. The top ten together brought in a total of $14.6 billion — leaving a king’s ransom for thousands of other titles to divide.

The vast majority of F2P revenue comes from Asia. Powerhouse companies like Tencent have been pushing their many microtransaction-based games

“Traditional” gaming, a term that is rapidly losing meaning and relevance, but which we can take to mean a game that you can pay perhaps $60 for and then play without significant further investment, amounted to about $16 billion across PCs and consoles worldwide.

An exception is the immensely popular PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, one of the hits that touched off the “battle royale” craze, which took in a billion on its own — though how much of that is sales versus microtransactions isn’t clear. Amazingly, Grand Theft Auto V, a game that came out five years ago, generated some $628 million last year (mostly from its online portion, no doubt).

The top titles there are nearly all parts of a series, and all lean heavily towards the Western and console-based, with only pennies (comparatively) going to Asian markets. China is a whole different world when it comes to gaming and distribution, so this isn’t too surprising.

Lastly, it would be neglectful not to mention the explosion of viewship on YouTube and Twitch, which together formed half of all gaming video revenue, with Twitch ahead by a considerable margin. But the real winner is Ninja, by far the most-watched streamer on Twitch with an astonishing 218 million hours watched by fans. Congratulations to him and the others making a living in this strange and fabulous new market.

Corruption at DJI may cost the company $150 million

DJI, the world’s leading maker of consumer drones, said today that extensive corruption discovered within the company could lead to losses as great as $150 million in the 2018 financial year. The exact nature of the corruption is not stated, but it seems to involve dozens of people at the least.

DJI, the world’s leading maker of consumer drones, said today that extensive corruption discovered within the company could lead to losses as great as $150 million in the 2018 financial year. The exact nature of the corruption is not stated, but it seems to involve dozens of people at the least.

The China Securities Journal, a state-operated finance-focused newspaper, got hold of an internal company report on a corruption investigation that said some 40 people had been investigated so far, but the numbers may also be as high as 100.

Reuters confirmed with the company that “set up a high-level anti-corruption task force to investigate further and strengthen anti-corruption measures,” and that “a number of corruption cases have been handed over to the authorities, and some employees have been dismissed.”

When contacted for details, DJI offered a statement (just after this post went live) partly explaining the situation:

During a recent investigation, DJI itself found some employees inflated the cost of parts and materials for certain products for personal financial gain. We took swift action to address this issue, fired the bad actors, and contacted law enforcement officials. We continue to investigate the situation and are cooperating fully with law enforcement’s investigation.

We are taking steps to strengthen internal controls and have established new channels for employees to submit confidential and anonymous reports relating to any violations of the company’s ethical and workplace conduct policies.

It’s a little hard to believe that people padding invoices and giving sweetheart deals to certain contractors for kickbacks could amount to more than a million dollars per person involved, but then again DJI makes a lot of hardware and a few well-placed people could siphon off quite a bit.

Here’s how SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will look motoring in from sea

If you’re coming back from space at high speeds, it’s generally safer to descend over water than land, for a number of reasons. Certainly SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will do so, and this is how it’ll look when it comes back to land aboard the Go Searcher retrieval ship. Expect a bit more of a hero’s welcome, though.

If you’re coming back from space at high speeds, it’s generally safer to descend over water than land, for a number of reasons. Certainly SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule will do so, and this is how it’ll look when it comes back to land aboard the GO Searcher retrieval ship. Expect a bit more of a hero’s welcome, though.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the GO Searcher; it got a bit of publicity late last year when it underwent some helicopter landing tests at sea.

See, the GO Searcher isn’t just a giant mitt like the boats that are intended to catch falling fairings; they not only have to collect a large, heavy capsule from the surface of the water but accommodate (and potentially administer medical aid to) anyone on board. So this is more of a mobile headquarters than a utility boat.

Dock lurkers at Port Canaveral in Florida (near the famous cape, naturally) spotted the ship returning from, presumably, some mock operations out at sea.

That does appear to be a Crew Dragon capsule (not likely an actual production capsule but a full-scale mock-up or prototype) on the back, so they probably were practicing snatching it up out of the water and setting it down softly in the boot there.

Coming back into port after practice will likely look a lot like this, though depending on the distance and mission it’s also more than possible that the safe astronauts, cosmonauts and other spacefarers will expedite their return by means of helicopter. The landing pad on the roof will be crucial if anyone is injured, of course (though there are medical facilities on board), but depending on where splashdown takes place — not to mention the weather — it might be preferable to take to the air rather than ride a slow boat to shore.

Whatever the case, you can certainly expect to see ships like this one arriving with great regularity soon. I’ve asked SpaceX for more details on this particular operation and whether it is related to the company’s upcoming Crew Dragon test flights.

Judge orders net neutrality lawsuit to go ahead despite shutdown

This week the possibility emerged that the ongoing government shutdown could delay net neutrality’s day in court — but the court was not sympathetic to the FCC’s request that the lawsuit be put off. Oral arguments for this major challenge to the agency’s rollback of 2015’s internet regulations will go ahead as planned on February 1.

This week the possibility emerged that the ongoing government shutdown could delay net neutrality’s day in court — but the court was not sympathetic to the FCC’s request that the lawsuit be put off. Oral arguments for this major challenge to the agency’s rollback of 2015’s internet regulations will go ahead as planned on February 1.

During a shutdown, federal employees — including government lawyers — must have specific authorization to continue working, since it’s illegal for them to do so without pay. In this case a judge on the case must effectively make that authorization.

The FCC is among the many agencies and organizations affected by the shutdown, and many employees are stuck at home. As such it requested a postponement of an upcoming court date at which it and several companies and advocacy groups are scheduled to argue over its rollback of net neutrality.

A counter-argument filed immediately by industry group INCOMPAS pointed out that during previous shutdowns, the court had not granted such requests and should stick to that precedent.

The judges of the D.C. Circuit Appeals Court appear to agree with the latter argument; the FCC’s motion was denied and arguments will go forward as planned on February 1.

This is definitely not good news for the FCC. While it no doubt has its ducks in a row as far as defending its net neutrality rollback and new rules in court (it has done so before and will again), it’s far from ideal that the case will take place after a prolonged absence of all the pertinent experts from their posts. Briefing the lawyers, updating arguments, responding to industry concerns — it’s not easy to do when all your staff is sitting at home watching “Bandersnatch” over and over.

The lawsuit against the FCC has lots of good points to make about the rules it has established and the process by which it approved those rules, so this is no mere formality or frivolous suit. And net neutrality champions are likely happy to hear that they may very well catch the agency flat-footed.

‘Star Wars’ returns: Trump calls for space-based missile defense

The President has announced that the Defense Department will pursue a space-based missile defense system reminiscent of the one proposed by Reagan in 1983. As with Reagan’s ultimately abortive effort, the technology doesn’t actually exist yet and may not for years to come.

The President has announced that the Defense Department will pursue a space-based missile defense system reminiscent of the one proposed by Reagan in 1983. As with Reagan’s ultimately abortive effort, the technology doesn’t actually exist yet and may not for years to come — but it certainly holds more promise now than 30 years ago.

In a speech at the Pentagon reported by the Associated Press, Trump explained that a new missile defense system would “detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, any time, any place.”

“My upcoming budget will invest in a space-based missile defense layer. It’s new technology. It’s ultimately going to be a very, very big part of our defense, and obviously our offense,” he said. The nature of this “new technology” is not entirely clear, as none was named or ordered to be tested or deployed.

Lest anyone think that this is merely one of the President’s flights of fancy, he is in fact simply voicing the conclusions of the Defense Department’s 2019 Missile Defense Review, a major report that examines the state of the missile threat against the U.S. and what countermeasures might be taken.

It reads in part:

As rogue state missile arsenals develop, space will play a particularly important role in support of missile defense.

Russia and China are developing advanced cruise missiles and hypersonic missile capabilities that can travel at exceptional speeds with unpredictable flight paths that challenge existing defensive systems.

The exploitation of space provides a missile defense posture that is more effective, resilient and adaptable to known and unanticipated threats… DoD will undertake a new and near-term examination of the concepts and technology for space-based defenses to assess the technological and operational potential of space-basing in the evolving security environment.

The President’s contribution seems to largely have been to eliminate the mention of the nation-states directly referenced (and independently assessed at length) in the report, and to suggest the technology is ready to deploy. In fact all the Pentagon is ready to do is begin research into the feasibility of the such a system or systems.

No doubt space-based sensors are well on their way; we already have near-constant imaging of the globe (companies like Planet have made it their mission), and the number and capabilities of such satellites are only increasing.

Space-based tech has evolved considerably over the many years since the much-derided “Star Wars” proposals, but some of them are still as unrealistic as they were then. However as the Pentagon report points out, the only way to know for sure is to conduct a serious study of the possibilities, and that’s what this plan calls for. All the same it may be best for Trump not to repeat Reagan’s mistake of making promises he can’t keep.

Ford’s iconic F-series trucks are going electric

Ford’s iconic and popular F-series pickup line will soon have electric options, the company announced today. The move is intended to “future-proof” the enormous truck business against rising gas prices and regulations favoring electric vehicles over internal combustion.

Ford’s legendary and popular F-series pickup line will soon have electric options, the company announced today. The move is intended to “future-proof” the enormous truck business against rising gas prices and regulations favoring electric vehicles over internal combustion.

Jim Farley, Ford’s president of global markets, announced the news at a press conference in Detroit. As reported in the Detroit Free Press, he specified that there will be both pure/battery electric and hybrid options — they aren’t dipping their toe but jumping in at the deep end.

Ford has been leaning into electric harder than ever over the last year, detailing an ambitious $11 billion plan to offer 40 electrified vehicles by 2022; some of those are entirely new cars, like the “Mustang-inspired electric crossover” coming next year, while others will be electric versions of classic lines like the F-series.

Tesla is also planning an electric pickup, but that company’s success in the luxury sedan market is unlikely to translate directly to the much different truck market. Rivian has one entering production, but it’s hard to imagine the brand breaking out of a rather small niche with its first model.

Ford knows that trucks and utility vehicles are its stronghold: it dedicates 90 percent of its capital to that side of the business. A million F-series trucks sold last year, and even if a tiny percentage of those were to be electric it would be a huge barrier to entry for companies with less reputation.

As more evidence of the company leaning into the renewable future, Ford announced last year that it would stop selling all but two cars in the U.S.: the Mustang and Focus Active. That doesn’t include SUVs and trucks, of course, but one senses that there will be a similar shift once those product categories are ready to be similarly phased out.

Ford detailed more general plans for its various regions and businesses in a press release.

“Over the last 19 months, we have worked to reshape and transform our company – sharpening our competitiveness, taking actions to improve our profitability and returns, and investing in our future,” said president and CEO Jim Hackett in the release.

SpaceX opts for Texas over LA for Starship work

SpaceX will center its largest-scale operations not in its Los Angeles-area headquarters but in south Texas facilities, the company said today. Development of its next-generation Starship and Super Heavy launch vehicle will take place in Texas, while Falcon 9 and Dragon work will remain at Hawthorne.

SpaceX will center its largest-scale operations not in its Los Angeles-area headquarters but in south Texas facilities, the company said today. Development of its next-generation Starship and Super Heavy launch vehicle will take place in Texas, while Falcon 9 and Dragon work will remain at Hawthorne. The L.A. Times first reported the news.

The decision spells trouble for workers at the Hawthorne, CA facility where many of SpaceX’s work has been done heretofore — however it may also come as little surprise to those who have been following closely. The layoffs announced last week, the bulk of which are reportedly at Hawthorne, is logical considering the company’s shift away from development to operation and maintenance of the Falcon 9 system.

Initial plans had been for SpaceX to build at least some of its Starship and Super Heavy kit at the L.A. port and perform tests at the nearby Vandenberg Air Base. But as evident not just from today’s news, but the actual presence of the eye-catching steel hopper in Texas, that will no longer be the case.

SpaceX offered the following statement:

To streamline operations, SpaceX is developing and will test the Starship test vehicle at our site in South Texas. This decision does not impact our current manufacture, design, and launch operations in Hawthorne and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Additionally, SpaceX will continue recovery operations of our reusable Falcon rockets and Dragon spacecraft at the Port of Los Angeles.

It’s a soft way of saying that they’ll keep the old (but still very important and active) SpaceX stuff at Hawthorne but that it’s putting the rest of its eggs in the Texas basket.

Shutdown could delay challenge of FCC’s net neutrality rollback

The ongoing shutdown of the federal government has already had adverse effects on millions nationwide, and now could even delay a major legal challenge to the FCC’s infamous net neutrality repeal. The agency moved yesterday to delay oral arguments scheduled for just two weeks from now. The arguments in a consolidated lawsuit against the FCC […]

The ongoing shutdown of the federal government has already had adverse effects on millions nationwide, and now could even delay a major legal challenge to the FCC’s infamous net neutrality repeal. The agency moved yesterday to delay oral arguments scheduled for just two weeks from now.

The arguments in a consolidated lawsuit against the FCC led by the likes of Mozilla, Vimeo and industry group INCOMPAS were set to begin on February 1. But of course no one could have predicted a record-setting government shutdown (well — some might have). That has serious implications in a case taking place in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In a court filing, the FCC explained its position:

…Due to the recent lapse in funding for the FCC and the relevant component of the Department of Justice, the Commission believes that, in an abundance of caution, it should move for an extension to ensure that attorneys may fully prepare for argument consistent with the Antideficiency Act…

That Act essentially prohibits the government from operating without adequate funding, which in this case includes U.S. legal counsel who would arguably be working without pay.

However, as you can imagine, there are plenty of federal court cases that can’t be delayed, and in those cases a judge can authorize the continued involvement of the federal lawyers and things will proceed. (This is all an extreme simplification, but sufficient for our purposes today.)

The FCC argues, not without reason, that arguments should be postponed; the Department of Justice did issue blanket guidance earlier that civil cases like this one should in general be put off.

INCOMPAS, however, quickly filed an opposition to this idea, pointing out that the court had in previous cases denied similar requests:

…When federal appropriations lapsed in 2013, resulting in a ‘shutdown’ from October 1 to October 17, 2013, the court received Government motions to stay oral argument in at least sixteen cases. Every one of these motions was denied; and every time, the Government then participated in oral argument.

It’s down to the judge to determine whether the case is urgent enough to authorize federal counsel to work during the shutdown. If it decides to delay, it could be weeks or months before it is rescheduled.

A quick response is requested, as whichever decision the judge makes, both sides will need to be ready to accommodate it. I’ll update this post if I hear a decision is reached.

Robots learn to grab and scramble with new levels of agility

Robots are amazing things, but outside of their specific domains they are incredibly limited. So flexibility — not physical, but mental — is a constant area of research. A trio of new robotic setups demonstrate ways they can evolve to accommodate novel situations: using both “hands,” getting up after a fall, and understanding visual instructions they’ve never seen before.

Robots are amazing things, but outside of their specific domains they are incredibly limited. So flexibility — not physical, but mental — is a constant area of research. A trio of new robotic setups demonstrate ways they can evolve to accommodate novel situations: using both “hands,” getting up after a fall, and understanding visual instructions they’ve never seen before.

The robots, all developed independently, are gathered together today in a special issue of the journal Science Robotics dedicated to learning. Each shows an interesting new way in which robots can improve their interactions with the real world.

On the other hand…

First there is the question of using the right tool for a job. As humans with multi-purpose grippers on the ends of our arms, we’re pretty experienced with this. We understand from a lifetime of touching stuff that we need to use this grip to pick this up, we need to use tools for that, this will be light, that heavy, and so on.

Robots, of course, have no inherent knowledge of this, which can make things difficult; it may not understand that it can’t pick up something of a given size, shape, or texture. A new system from Berkeley roboticists acts as a rudimentary decision-making process, classifying objects as able to be grabbed either by an ordinary pincer grip or with a suction cup grip.

A robot, wielding both simultaneously, decides on the fly (using depth-based imagery) what items to grab and with which tool; the result is extremely high reliability even on piles of objects it’s never seen before.

It’s done with a neural network that consumed millions of data points on items, arrangements, and attempts to grab them. If you attempted to pick up a teddy bear with a suction cup and it didn’t work the first ten thousand times, would you keep on trying? This system learned to make that kind of determination, and as you can imagine such a thing is potentially very important for tasks like warehouse picking for which robots are being groomed.

Interestingly, because of the “black box” nature of complex neural networks, it’s difficult to tell what exactly Dex-Net 4.0 is actually basing its choices on, although there are some obvious preferences, explained Berkeley’s  Ken Goldberg in an email.

“We can try to infer some intuition but the two networks are inscrutable in that we can’t extract understandable ‘policies,’ ” he wrote. “We empirically find that smooth planar surfaces away from edges generally score well on the suction model and pairs of antipodal points generally score well for the gripper.”

Now that reliability and versatility are high, the next step is speed; Goldberg said that the team is “working on an exciting new approach” to reduce computation time for the network, to be documented, no doubt, in a future paper.

ANYmal’s new tricks

Quadrupedal robots are already flexible in that they can handle all kinds of terrain confidently, even recovering from slips (and of course cruel kicks). But when they fall, they fall hard. And generally speaking they don’t get up.

The way these robots have their legs configured makes it difficult to do things in anything other than an upright position. But ANYmal, a robot developed by ETH Zurich (and which you may recall from its little trip to the sewer recently), has a more versatile setup that gives its legs extra degrees of freedom.

What could you do with that extra movement? All kinds of things. But it’s incredibly difficult to figure out the exact best way for the robot to move in order to maximize speed or stability. So why not use a simulation to test thousands of ANYmals trying different things at once, and use the results from that in the real world?

This simulation-based learning doesn’t always work, because it isn’t possible right now to accurately simulate all the physics involved. But it can produce extremely novel behaviors or streamline ones humans thought were already optimal.

At any rate that’s what the researchers did here, and not only did they arrive at a faster trot for the bot (above), but taught it an amazing new trick: getting up from a fall. Any fall. Watch this:

It’s extraordinary that the robot has come up with essentially a single technique to get on its feet from nearly any likely fall position, as long as it has room and the use of all its legs. Remember, people didn’t design this — the simulation and evolutionary algorithms came up with it by trying thousands of different behaviors over and over and keeping the ones that worked.

Ikea assembly is the killer app

Let’s say you were given three bowls, with red and green balls in the center one. Then you’re given this on a sheet of paper:

As a human with a brain, you take this paper for instructions, and you understand that the green and red circles represent balls of those colors, and that red ones need to go to the left, while green ones go to the right.

This is one of those things where humans apply vast amounts of knowledge and intuitive understanding without even realizing it. How did you choose to decide the circles represent the balls? Because of the shape? Then why don’t the arrows refer to “real” arrows? How do you know how far to go to the right or left? How do you know the paper even refers to these items at all? All questions you would resolve in a fraction of a second, and any of which might stump a robot.

Researchers have taken some baby steps towards being able to connect abstract representations like the above with the real world, a task that involves a significant amount of what amounts to a sort of machine creativity or imagination.

Making the connection between a green dot on a white background in a diagram and a greenish roundish thing on a black background in the real world isn’t obvious, but the “visual cognitive computer” created by Miguel Lázaro-Gredilla and his colleagues at Vicarious AI seems to be doing pretty well at it.

It’s still very primitive, of course, but in theory it’s the same toolset that one uses to, for example, assemble a piece of Ikea furniture: look at an abstract representation, connect it to real-world objects, then manipulate those objects according to the instructions. We’re years away from that, but it wasn’t long ago that we were years away from a robot getting up from a fall or deciding a suction cup or pincer would work better to pick something up.

The papers and videos demonstrating all the concepts above should be available at the Science Robotics site.