1. Good Monday Morning

It’s July 12th and still brutally hot throughout most of the country. The unofficial temperatures in Death Valley reported on Sunday were around 130 degrees. That’s still a few degrees short of the world record and very dangerous. Our friends at Moms Clean Air Force have lots of free extreme weather resources that address women’s health, children’s health, and wildfires.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,197 words — about a 4 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

Quoted: ” … the Infringement increased traffic to the Account, and, in turn, caused Defendant to realize an increase its [sic] advertising revenues and/or merchandise sales.” — a copyright infringement suit filed against pop star Dua Lipa who posted a picture of herself on Instagram that was taken by a paparazzi photographer. Musicians Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande have faced similar suits.

a) Google and Amazon are also facing legal action over entertainment. We learned Friday that the Federal Trade Commission is launching a probe over Amazon’s purchase of MGM. That deal was announced in May, but Amazon critic and new FTC chair Lina Khan recently received Senate approval for her position. That move came only two days after a group of nearly forty states led by Utah filed an antitrust suit against the Google Play Store used to distribute Android apps.

b) Amazon is also facing criticism for conditioning supplier approval based on whether the company will allow Amazon the option of purchasing equity at below market rates. The Wall Street Journal broke the news and reported that Amazon has done “more than 75 such deals.” Those equity arrangements were with diverse companies such as grocery distributors, energy companies, and air transportation firms.

c) TikTok is blaming a programming error for allegations raised by an influencer that the company flagged as inappropriate phrases such as “Black Lives Matter” and “black success,” but allowed phrases like “white supremacy” to be posted. Recode reports that TikTok claimed its “hate speech detector is triggered by a combination of words involving the words “Black” and “audience” — because “audience” contains the word “die” in it.”

3. Search Engine News — Site Appearance Can Hurt Rankings

Google search executive John Mueller doubled down on a 2019 post the company made that suggested a website’s appearance can harm its overall rankings. Search Engine Journal quoted Muller in a recent webinar as saying, “If, for example, you have something that is on a financial topic and people come to you and say “well your information is okay but it’s presented in a way that looks very amateurish,” — then that could reflect how your website is perceived. And in the long run could reflect something that is visible in search as well.”

Google announced last week that business owners can now create posts about events — including details like when and where they are happening — in their business profile. That event information will now be shown in Search and on Google Maps.

4. Spotlight Explainer — REvil Ransomware

REvil Ransomware Explainer: Ransomware is the name for a program that locks up computers and their files. REvil is the name of a Russian crime syndicate that launched a ransomware attack right before the Independence Day long weekend that targeted software that IT companies use. About 50 of those IT companies were compromised. Their customers are mostly small organizations, and about 1,500 were reportedly victims.

How Much Did This Cost?: Initial reportssuggested that the IT companies would have to pay $5 million each and their end customers pay up to $45,000 each to retrieve their encrypted files. That price would double after July 9. Not helping matters: opportunistic scammers who posed as the REvil hackers and tried to steal the ransom.

Who Was Affected?:  A handful of schools in New Zealand, a Swedish supermarket chain, a Norwegian financial services company, and the network of Leonardtown, Maryland, were all reported victims of this REvil ransomware attack.

What’s The Status?:  Many of the affected companies are using backups and workaround systems to operate. By last Friday, fewer than 100 organizations were still affected, which is great, unless you’re involved with one of those hundred. 

Who Are These REvil Ransomware People? Operating under the collective name REvil, this group first made headlines by attacking a law firm with high profile clients that included Madonna. In May, they attacked meat processor JBS S.A. and disrupted food supply chains in the U.S., Canada, and Australia. Their other targets this year include Apple and computer manufacturer Acer.

5. Debunked — SBA Grants May Be Real

The Small Business Administration still has COVID relief funds to grant to small businesses operating in low income areas. The money can be up to $15,000 and does not have to be repaid. 

To learn more about the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan, you’ll want to start at the SBA’s website instead of some random email.

 6. Following Up — NFTs Still Selling Well

We told you about non-fungible tokens (NFTs) way back in March. They are digital certificates tied to some sort of ephemera like a video highlight or song. They don’t signify ownership. Instead, they’re like a digital trading card.

Celebrities and sports leagues sold a bunch of them for a lot of money. Even toymaker Mattel got involved with auctions around its Hot Wheels cars.

Separately, world wide web founder Sir Tim Berners-Lee auctioned an NFT that represented the source code of the web. Berners-Lee insisted that the values of the web were being followed because the underlying structure remains free, and yeah, he’s probably right. An undisclosed buyer spent more than $5 million at Sotheby’s on an image of the code, but techies enjoyed a bit of schadenfreude afterwards when they noted that the code contained an error. 

7. Protip — Recover Cloud Based Documents–Even Edits

Even if you’re working solo, you may be using collaborative software like Google Docs or Microsoft Word that includes a history of all edits. Follow the easy-to-use Gizmodo guide to easily restore previous versions of files stored online.

Screening Room — Air Bubble Playground

I am in love with this spot from nasal spray Otrivin. Along with partner ecoLogicStudio, they created a playground that cleans the air as kids play. 

9. Science Fiction World — The First Virtual Student

Hua Zhibing is a virtual student powered by a one trillion scale model known as Wudao 2.0. We’ve written a lot about Open AI’s GPT-3 model and its scope, which is reportedly less powerful than Wudao by a couple of orders of magnitude. 

Hua is a deep learning model expected to get closer to passing a Turing test than any other previous attempt. The 70 year old Turing test is a measure of a computer’s ability to pass for human when interacting with a human.

10. Coffee Break — Open Puppies

Sometimes you just need to see a bunch of good puppers and doggos who aren’t trying to use deep learning models to pass for human. That’s the whole point of Open Puppies, which you should indeed open whenever you need a lift this week. 

11. Sign of The Times

1. Good Monday Morning

It’s June 28. Spotlight is off next Monday for the Independence Day holiday. Be safe and happy until then. We’ll be back in your email on July 12..

Today’s Spotlight is 1,068 words — about a 4 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

Quoted: “We need more choices, not to replace Google or Bing, but to offer alternatives… if we do not have our own [search] index, we are just a layer of paint on top of Google or Bing.” — Josep M. Pujol, Chief of Search at Brave to TechCrunch upon the browser launching its own search engine.

a) Western Digital is warning owners of its MyBook external hard drive devices to disconnect them from the internet because hackers are using an exploit that enables them to remotely wipe the drives. (Krebs on Security)

b)  An Amazon fulfillment center in Scotland is destroying millions of unsold items every year. An ex-manager at the facility provided ITV with documentation showing 124,000 items were destroyed during one week in April. Companies using Amazon to store and fulfill their products can ask the company to destroy the stock rather than pay to have unsold items returned. The fulfillment center is one of 24 in the UK and 185 globally.

c)  Telephone carriers have until Wednesday to finally implement the Stir/Shaken call verification system that will make it harder for companies making robocalls to hide their actual telephone number. CNET has an FAQ on the new program.

3. Search Engine News — New Search Message for Breaking News

Google is now using a consumer friendly message to respond to queries about evolving news stories for which the search engine has not yet indexed reliable content. This type of situation is exactly how Google News was created following the 9/11 terror attacks, but the main search index has not had this type of protection.

That meant that breaking news events traditionally kicked off a rush to post information to be among the first results in Google during a normally chaotic time.

Google also announced that it will expand its coverage of harassment-based search results. They say that they will apply “ranking protections to help prevent content from low quality sites appearing in search results for people’s names.”

Google used the example of the Babcock family in the UK that had been targeted by false reports online that the men in that family were pedophiles and child molesters while the women were labeled cheaters and scammers. Sites such as Ripoff Report, Deadbeats Exposed, and She’s a Homewrecker were specifically described in a New York Times expose that Google linked to. Sites like Ripoff Report often charge hundreds or thousands of dollars to have a subject go through “mediation” before removing a post with information another person has posted.

4. In The Spotlight — Dark Patterns

Dark patterns are under the spotlight in consumer circles and may soon be as familiar a term as robocalls. The phrase is used to describe a type of internet design that tricks or pressures a person into taking an unwanted action. Think of them as dirty tricks unscrupulous marketers use.

The tactics include disguising ads as editorial content, using hidden buttons and links, confusing trials with paid offers, or creating opt-outs that make you take an action to stop the company from doing something rather than defaulting to nothing. There are also fraudulent behaviors like signing up for recurring bills by simply clicking a button or hiding important terms. 

Usability designer Harry Bignull first codified this disingenuous behavior and now leads the professional effort to identify and halt dark patterns. That includes the new Dark Patterns Tipline that opened in May with support from Consumer Reports and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The new effort shows multiple examples of bad behavior by well known companies such as Carfax and Grubhub. (Full disclosure: I was on Carfax’s executive team for 8 years beginning in the mid 1990s).

Government is also paying attention. California modified its landmark Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) to ban dark patterns from websites. Those include confusing language or using more steps to opt-out of sharing private data than there are to opt-in. Former FTC Chair Rebecca Slaughter called for national rules to ban dark patterns. During a speech last week, she told a nonprofit group, “…We need to be focusing on the burden on the firms to limit their collection in the first instance, prohibit their sharing, prohibit their abusive use of data.”

Want to test how easy it is to be influenced by this insidious behavior? The Markup has created a quiz that lets you match your wits against these tricky techniques.

5. Debunked — Childhood Vaccines

Memes are floating around social media suggesting that childhood vaccines and laundry detergent share 16 common ingredients. Reuters has the fact check documenting that there are only three common ingredients: water, glycerin, and castor oil.

 6. Following Up — Microsoft Support Rep Hacked

As Microsoft investigated the Solar Winds hack, the group who did that hack compromised a Microsoft employee’s computer to launch targeted attacks against Microsoft customers. This news was breaking throughout the weekend, and there will undoubtedly be more revelations this week. Throughout 2021, Ars Technica has had some of the best coverage of this incident. You can also read our past coverage of the Solar Winds hack.

7. Protip — New Gmail Collaboration Tools

You’ve undoubtedly seen the brand new “Rooms” and “Chat” features in Gmail. Here are step-by-step instructions on using Google Docs, Chat, and other Google-specific programs without having to switch browser tabs.

Screening Room — Wedding Singers

Ryan Reynolds and his Maximum Effort ad agency are behind the latest Match.com commercial featuring real wedding singers crooning a new song penned by award-winning songwriters. 

9. Science Fiction World — AI Lip Reading

That scene in bad spy movies featuring a trained lip reader watching a target through binoculars is about to become anachronistic. Motherboard is reporting that people unable to vocalize may soon be helped by an AI app that translates lip movement into words.

10. Coffee Break — Follow A Drop of Water to the Ocean

This amazing 3-D science visualization simulates a drop of water as it flows from anywhere in the world to larger bodies of water. 

11. Sign of the Times

1. Good Monday Morning

It’s June 21. The made-up shopping holiday known as Amazon Prime Day begins today and ends tomorrow. We found you a well regarded web app that lets you check a product’s price history on Amazon. You have to click the product’s name in the search result to get to the history.

Today’s Spotlight is 1,073 words — about a 4 minute read.

2. News To Know Now

Quoted: “We do not allow hate speech on Facebook, even in the context of satire, because it creates an environment of intimidation and exclusion, and in some cases, may promote real-world violence.”a Facebook statement regarding a ruling by its Oversight Board that required the company to reinstate a satirical post.

a) Texas power officials triggered jokes galore last week when residents were asked to set their thermostats to 82 while sleeping. Some residents had that choice made for them because they signed up for a program called “Smart Savers Texas.” That program gave Texans a free sweepstakes entry in exchange for allowing their thermostats to be remotely controlled during high energy demand. From the reactions, many people did not think that would happen. (KHOU)

b) Zillow says that its algorithms’ accuracy have improved. Having improved its Zestimate house price estimate by 6.9%, Zillow plans to increase the number of homes it will offer to purchase by 30%. (WGCL)

c) Nielsen is putting perspective around the size of streaming audiences that is upending conventional wisdom. The company released a new visualization called The Gauge (below). The infographic compares streaming, broadcast, and even DVD viewing against each other rather than comparing individual programs. Netflix and YouTube streaming each make up 6% of viewing and contribute to streaming’s 26% of total viewing.

3. Search Engine News — New Ranking Method Rolling Out

Google’s Page Experience ranking update began rolling out last week. We’ve been telling you about this impending change since last year. Google advises that the new methodology won’t be completed for at least two months.

Factors influencing how a website page ranks include its mobile friendliness and encryption. A group of other page speed and technical metrics that Google calls Core Web Vitals also factor into the algorithm.

The change is significant. Business leaders will want to spend the next several months carefully monitoring the volume of search traffic. Even if your website isn’t directly affected yet, there could very well be changes to your competitors’ websites.

4. In The Spotlight — Covid App Problems Continuing

We’ve all read about the difficulty that contact tracing efforts met from the beginning of the pandemic. Even when states began putting human resources in place, too many people refused to cooperate. Community leaders hoped that digital contact tracing would help.

MIT Technology Review concluded that they really didn’t in large part because of a lack of user trust and the federal government’s failure to create a national app. Experts also cite the sidelining of the CDC, considered one of the best in the world at contact tracing, as a problem.

Digital apps were supposed to be an answer. Americans turned to food delivery, streaming media, and the internet for a year, but widely refused to cooperate with human or digital contact tracers. Two dozen states developed their own exposure notification apps, but the adoption rates in the U.S. mainland ranged from abysmal (only 1% each in Arizona and North Dakota) to low (37% in Connecticut). 

There were reports this weekend of Android phones in Massachusetts automatically receiving an installation of MassNotify, a Covid tracking app. The app still requires a user to opt-in and turn on exposure notices, but some reports suggest that the app is difficult to remove.

User privacy concerns may have been justified. Gizmodo reported last week that police in Western Australia accessed private data from that state’s Covid app at least twice during criminal investigations. Police claim that their use was legal and justified although they concede that people may have been unaware that their information could be checked.

5. Debunked — Hillary Clinton in Cuba

A QAnon site shared fake, graphic details of the alleged execution of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Guantánamo Bay last week. Needless to say, Secretary Clinton is alive and appeared last week with Lin-Manuel Miranda in New York. The graphic details were so disturbing to some that USA Today ran a fact check.

The FBI issued a threat assessment June 4 that warned that some QAnon followers could become violent when the conspiracy theory’s predictions fail to occur.

6. Following Up — Amazon Bigger Than 9 Competitors Combined

We published a deep dive into Amazon Retail just two weeks ago to get you ready for Prime Day. eMarketer released data after our report that shows Amazon’s e-commerce sales in the U.S. exceed the combined sales of the rest of its Top 10 competitors. Included on that list are Walmart, Apple, and Target.

7. Protip — Yes, You Can Fax On A Computer

Some entity still using Windows 3.1 and firmly entrenched in the 1990s is going to insist you fax something to them one day. Maybe it will be a small government agency or someplace similar. Save this How-To Geek roundup of three services that will let you do just that rather than arguing with them.

Screening Room — Internova Travel Group

How do you compete against highly automated competitors? This travel agency says you should make fun of ’em.

9. Science Fiction World — Wirelessly Charge Vehicles On the Road

Cornell researchers say they’ve developed an approach to create a charging lane on a roadway that would allow travel to become even more sustainable. They’ve even figured out how to bill you for that energy so I smell a public-private partnership being formed right about now.

10. Coffee Break — Nature’s Great Pics of the Month

I didn’t know that this feature existed before this month, but I’ll be checking it out in the future. Nature’s photo team selects the science pictures of the month, and they’re stunning.

11. Sign of the Times