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Old 24-02-21, 07:36 AM   #1
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Default Peer-To-Peer News - The Week In Review - February 27th, ’21

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February 27th, 2021

California can Finally Enforce its Landmark Net Neutrality Law, Judge Rules

It survived challenges from Trump’s DOJ, and now one from telecom industry too
Sean Hollister

Net neutrality died a horrible death in 2017, but things have just turned around: California’s landmark net neutrality law — erected in 2018 but immediately blocked by lawsuits from Trump’s Department of Justice and the telecom industry — can finally be enforced.

That’s the verdict from Judge John Mendez today, who declined to grant the telecom industry the preliminary injunction it had requested. The case might not be over, but the law can go into effect — and the judge doesn’t think the telecom industry is likely to win.

According to MLEx journalist Mike Swift and The Hollywood Reporter’s Eriq Gardner, each of whom had been following the decision live, Judge Mendez believes it should be up to Congress to say whether net neutrality should exist:

The DOJ dropped its own lawsuit challenging the California law earlier this month, so the telecom industry’s possible preliminary injunction was the last thing standing in the way — for now.

Here’s the acting chairwoman of the FCC’s thoughts on the matter:

California State Senator Scott Weiner, who authored the bill, is celebrating:

SB 822 is the strongest net neutrality law in the nation. We worked incredibly hard to pass this law, overcoming massive corporate opposition. California can now fully protect an open internet.
— Senator Scott Wiener (@Scott_Wiener) February 24, 2021

And so am I, as a California resident who knows it’s past time to fix the internet.

Here’s the full text of the California Internet Consumer Protection and Net Neutrality Act of 2018, also known as SB-822. It contains a list of things that ISPs are not going to be able to do, including paid prioritization, “zero-rating” favorable content so it doesn’t count against your data cap (think of those bundled streaming services!), and failing to tell you fast service actually is and how their network management practices and speeds actually work.

'Net Neutrality Hurt Internet Infrastructure Investment' Is The Bad Faith Lie That Simply Won't Die
Karl Bode

Since the very beginning of the net neutrality debate, ISPs have repeatedly (and falsely) proclaimed that net neutrality rules (read: stopgap rules crafted in the absence of competition to stop giant monopolies from abusing their power) utterly demolished broadband sector investment. It was a primary talking point during the battle over the flimsy 2010 rules, utilized extensively during the 2015 passage of slightly tougher rules, and was foundational in the Trump FCC's arguments justifying their hugely unpopular and fraud prone repeal of those rules.

Time after time after time, big ISPs (and the politicians and regulators paid to love them) lied and claimed that the modest rules (by international standards) had crushed sector investment. Then, when the rules were repealed, they again lied that this had triggered a massive new investment wave. Never mind that countless different studies showed the rules had no impact on investment. If that wasn't enough, it was repeatedly confirmed by ISP earnings reports, and the public statements of numerous CEOs that this claim was never true.

It's a lie, the folks pushing it know it's a lie, but they just keep repeating it so it's cemented as gospel among the alternative facts set.

With net neutrality potentially getting restored at the Biden FCC (assuming they can get around to appointing a new Democratic Commissioner), the lie is being trotted out again by Trump's last-minute FCC appointment, Nathan Simington. Speaking over at the Free State Foundation on Wednesday, Simington once again trotted out the old, reliable bogeyman:

"...my biggest worry about Title II is really that, after a few years of chilling effects on infrastructure construction, we will find ourselves in an entirely avoidable and artificial broadband infrastructure crisis."

So one, we're already in a crisis now caused by decades of shitty state and federal leadership and monopolization. The previous FCC gutted most FCC consumer protection authority right before a pandemic, leaving it unable to adequately police everything from privacy violations to billing fraud. And it turned a blind eye as the telecom industry used bogus statistics (and even fake or dead people to provide bogus support for it). It also literally did absolutely nothing to meaningfully address the stranglehold regional monopolies like AT&T and Comcast have over the market.

If Simington was really concerned about the idea that reclassifying ISPs as common carriers under Title II harmed infrastructure investment, there's just an ocean of data disproving the claim that should have put his mind at ease. The same day Simington was giving his speech, consumer groups like Free Press were testifying before Congress, using reams of research data showing this lie isn't true. In fact, several of the ISPs that were given tens of billions in tax breaks and subsidies during the Trump era for literally doing nothing trimmed overall investment:

"In fact, investment declined every year of Chairman Pai’s tenure. AT&T investment dropped 20 percent in 2020, and 52 percent from its peak in the last year for the Obama FCC. Comcast’s dropped 4 and half percent last year, down 22 percent from 2016. But even if deregulation alone had increased deployment — and it didn’t — buildout alone would not lower price or increase adoption in the absence of competition, oversight, and more robust adoption subsidies."

Again, this isn't a "he said, she said" scenario. SEC filings, earnings reports, CEO statements, and numerous studies all show net neutrality rules (which again had the overwhelming bipartisan majority of public support) neither harmed, nor spurred, meaningful broadband investment. As somebody that has covered this sector for twenty years, I assure you the lack of broadband investment in the United States has two primary causes: rampant state and federal corruption (regulatory capture), and monopolization.
Obvious problems folks like Simington (much like freshly-departed FCC boss Ajit Pai) either downplay or refuse to acknowledge whatsoever.

Most of these folks know they're parroting a lie, but they continue to do it anyway because in the US media environment, it continues to work. Bloomberg, for example, was quick to write an entire story parroting the falsehood, even going so far as to repeat the lie, unchallenged, in a headline. So as the latest net neutrality debate heats up once again, don't expect the press, or many of the folks who think "let Comcast do whatever it wants" is real policy, to meaningfully change their stripes.

AT&T and Frontier have Let Phone Networks Fall Apart, Calif. Regulator Finds

AT&T raised phone prices 153% over a decade as service got steadily worse.
Jon Brodkin

AT&T and Frontier have let their copper phone networks deteriorate through neglect since 2010, resulting in poor service quality and many lengthy outages, a report commissioned by the California state government found. Customers in low-income areas and areas without substantial competition have fared the worst, the report found. AT&T in particular was found to have neglected low-income communities and to have imposed severe price increases adding up to 152.6 percent over a decade.

The report was written in April 2019 but kept private because data submitted by the carriers was deemed confidential and proprietary. The report finally became public after the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) ruled in December 2020 that a redacted version had to be released by mid-January.

A summary of the CPUC-commissioned report identified six key findings:

• Service Quality has deteriorated: Both carriers exhibited a higher relative number of outages and longer time required to restore service for outages lasting more than 24 hours.
• Demonstrated lack of resiliency: AT&T and Frontier are not maintaining networks to withstand environmental and weather-related conditions. Networks are not robust, both Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers (ILECs) have cut back on preventative maintenance expenditures.
• Disinvestment in Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS): AT&T and Frontier are putting very little investment into infrastructure that supports only Time Division Multiplexing (TDM) service. Both ILECs are relying on price increases and customer inertia to maintain revenue stream.
• Increased investment in broadband improves POTS service quality: AT&T and Frontier areas with higher broadband investment have a higher level of POTS service quality and better performance on all [service] metrics.
• AT&T is focusing on higher income communities: AT&T wire centers serving areas with the lowest household incomes exhibit higher trouble report rates and longer out-of-service durations than areas in higher income communities.
• Direct relationship between amount of competition and service quality results: Areas with limited or no competition experience lower service quality results. Both AT&T and Frontier put more investment and attention in areas with higher rates of competitive offerings.

Frontier's California network was owned and operated by Verizon until Frontier bought it in April 2016.

Long outages

AT&T and Frontier both repeatedly failed to meet the state's minimum standard to "repair 90 percent of all out-of-service trouble reports within 24 hours."

"The requirement to clear a minimum 90 percent of out-of-service (OOS) reports within 24 hours has never been met by AT&T since 2010. Verizon/Frontier met the OOS standard in only two of the 96 months covered by this study," the report said.

"AT&T has the financial resources to maintain and upgrade its wireline network in California, but has yet to do so," the report also said. "Frontier has a strong interest in pursuing such upgrades, but lacks the financial capacity to make the necessary investments." Frontier filed for bankruptcy in April 2020 while admitting that its financial problems were caused largely by a "significant under-investment in fiber deployment."

The report further described AT&T's failure to invest in low-income communities in this paragraph:

Whether deliberate or not, AT&T's investment policies have tended to favor higher-income communities, and have thus had a disproportionate impact upon the state's lowest income areas. For example, the weighted average 2010 median annual household income for... areas that had been upgraded with fiber optic feeder facilities to support broadband services was $72,024, vs. only $60,795 for wire centers without such upgrades. Using 2010 US Census data, we find a clear inverse relationship between household income and all of the principal service quality metrics. Wire centers serving areas with the lowest household incomes tend to have the highest trouble report rates, the longest out-of-service durations, the lowest percentages of outages cleared within 24 hours, and the longest times required to clear 90 percent of service outages. The opposite is the case for the highest income communities.

AT&T’s rapidly rising prices

AT&T "has raised its rates for legacy flat-rate residential service by 152.6 percent since the service was de-tariffed by the CPUC in 2009," the report said. The price increases support a "harvesting" strategy that maintains revenue "despite a massive drop-off in demand" for landline phone service.

AT&T "has ceased active marketing of POTS, has degraded POTS service quality, and instead relies upon successive price increases and customer inertia to maintain its declining POTS revenue stream," the CPUC report said. Despite years of steady price increases, AT&T "made minimal investments in outside plant rehabilitation, and has also allowed service quality for its legacy services to decline."

AT&T's flat-rate phone price in California rose from $10.69 per month in 2006 to $27 in 2018, adding up to a 152.6 percent increase, the report said. The biggest increases began in 2009. Frontier and its predecessor Verizon raised the flat rate by 30.6 percent (from $16.85 to $22) over the same time frame.

AT&T's "measured rate" service, in which the price varies by the number of calls made, rose in price from $5.70 in 2006 to $24.25 in 2018, a 325.4 percent increase. Frontier/Verizon's measured rate prices increased by 34 percent in the same time period.

Telecom analyst Bruce Kushnick argued in a blog post today that phone prices should have "plummeted" over the years but that AT&T uses the revenue from its poorly maintained landline phone service to pay for upgrades to its mobile network. Kushnick and his "Irregulators" group have been calling for investigations into these "cross-subsidies."

"In October 2020, the Irregulators filed with the CA Broadband Council and CA Public Utility Commission (CPUC) claiming that AT&T most likely has been overcharging customers billions of dollars annually, and that it has been taking the construction budgets that should have been dedicated to the cities and homes in California and instead has been diverting them to wireless instead of upgrading the state telecom utility," Kushnick wrote today.

Though Frontier also raised prices over the years, it has not "implemented the extreme succession of significant price increases for its legacy residential POTS services" seen with AT&T, the report said. The report also said Frontier hasn't used the "harvesting" strategy implemented by AT&T.

"Frontier, as a 'pure-play' ILEC, has a strong incentive to maintain and to grow its customer base, not to allow it to dissipate. These are all positives for Frontier's future if it is somehow able to reverse its financial decline," the report said.

Status quo

We contacted AT&T and Frontier about the CPUC report today and asked what steps the carriers have taken to improve service quality. We also asked the CPUC what actions it took in response to the report and whether AT&T and Frontier service has gotten better or worse since the report was written in April 2019. We'll update this article if we get any responses.

Frontier recently agreed to expand its fiber-to-the-premises network and improve its poor service quality in California as part of a settlement that will help the company exit bankruptcy. Frontier also agreed to temporary price freezes on voice service through the rest of 2021.

AT&T in October stopped offering legacy DSL service to new customers despite having failed to upgrade tens of millions of legacy DSL lines across the US to fiber. AT&T continues to sell DSL to existing customers.

AT&T's latest embarrassment occurred this month when a 90-year-old customer in California paid for a Wall Street Journal print ad to complain about his slow DSL Internet service. The bad publicity shamed AT&T into upgrading his home to fiber. But as the CPUC report notes, AT&T has failed to adequately maintain its network, leaving many DSL Internet and landline phone customers with outdated and unreliable service that continues to get worse.

Update: Frontier issued a response, saying, "The report covers a time period largely prior to Frontier’s ownership and offers recommendations to regulators, not mandates to providers. While Frontier does not agree with all the conclusions, we continue working cooperatively to address service quality and reported significant improvements in our most recent report to the CPUC. We will maintain a focus on quality and continuing to create benefits for our customers and the California communities we serve."

Massachusetts Lawmakers Push to Ban Data Usage Limits

Two Democratic state lawmakers want to prohibit Internet service providers from capping customers' data use as part of a proposal giving Massachusetts the authority to regulate the industry there.
Christian M. Wade

Two Democratic lawmakers in Massachusetts want to prohibit internet service providers from capping customers' data use as part of a proposal giving the state authority to regulate the industry.

The plan, filed by state Reps. Andy Vargas , D- Haverhill and David Rogers , D- Cambridge, would ban broadband providers operating in Massachusetts from limiting the amount of data used by customers or shutting them off for excessive use. The plan would also repeal a law that prevents the state from regulating internet providers.

"There shouldn't be data caps or shut-offs to the internet," Vargas said. "We don't allow utilities to shut off people during the pandemic, so why would we allow it for something as essential as the internet?"

Vargas' proposal is designed to protect residents as many people work remotely and many students study from home during the health crisis.

Unlike natural gas and electric companies, internet providers aren't regulated by the state, Vargas said, and are generally "allowed to set their own rates."

"The majority of people in the state only have one internet service provider, so most people don't have a choice," he said. "There's no competition."

Internet providers are currently regulated by the Federal Communications Commission and operate locally under franchise agreements with cities and towns.

Some states, like Maine and Vermont, have passed "net neutrality laws" that give them authority over internet provider practices within their jurisdictions.

Vargas' proposal would make Massachusetts one — if not the only — state with regulatory authority over internet providers. If the plan is approved, the state Department of Telecommunications and Cable would set the regulations.

Industry officials say the proposed changes are unnecessary and might run afoul of FCC regulations.

Tim Wilkerson , president and CEO of the New England Cable and Telecommunications Association which represents Comcast and other internet providers, called the proposal a "solution in search of a problem."

"Since the very beginning of the pandemic, our member companies in Massachusetts have worked continually to support customers, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in their networks to provide ongoing reliability and innovation, helping low-income individuals access fast and reliable internet, opening up thousands of free Wi-Fi hotspots and much more," he said.

The proposal is emerging amid rancor over Comcast's plans to impose a new 1.2 terabyte monthly "data cap" in Massachusetts and other Northeastern states for customers who use the Pennsylvania-based company's Xfinity service.

Under the changes, Comcast customers who go above the data limit for its 1.2 terabyte internet service will have to pay $10 for each additional 50 gigabytes used. But the company points out that surcharges would be capped at $100 extra per month, and it also offers unlimited internet plans for customers who need more data.

Comcast began informing customers about the changes over the past few months and notified those who were exceeding the cap, giving them a two-month grace period to adjust their internet use.

But the company's decision to implement the changes amid the pandemic sparked outrage from elected officials who were bombarded with calls from angry constituents.

A group of more than 70 lawmakers wrote to Comcast in December, urging the company to scrap its plan and reconsider "any future attempts at imposing a data cap or any perversion of the principles of net neutrality in Massachusetts."

"It is inconceivable that Comcast would choose to impose this 'cap and fee' plan during a pandemic, when many Massachusetts residents are forced to work and attend school from home via the internet," lawmakers wrote.

Vargas said the company refused to scrap the changes, so lawmakers responded with a bill that would prevent internet providers from capping data usage during the state of emergency. Comcast recently said it will delay data cap overage fees until August, but on Friday a company spokesperson said that date has now been pushed back to 2022.

Still, Vargas said lawmakers see a need to protect consumers by letting the state regulate the multibillion-dollar industry as it does utilities.

"The internet is an essential service just like water and electricity," he said. "We need to make sure we provide the same kind of protections for consumers."

T-Mobile's Magenta Max Plan Comes with True Unlimited Data

It also includes unlimited 4K streaming.
Igor Bonifacic

T-Mobile is introducing a plan later this week that will almost entirely do away with throttling. Its new Magenta Max plan includes unlimited premium data and unlimited video streaming at 4K. It also comes with 40GB of high-speed tethering data (T-Mobile will throttle your devices to 3G speeds after you go over that limit), in addition to perks like complimentary Gogo in-flight WiFi and international roaming in 210 countries.

Magenta Plans 2021T-Mobile

All so-called "unlimited" plans in the US (and some other parts of the world) currently throttle customers after they go over their monthly data allotment. T-Mobile claims it won't do that with Magenta Max, whether you're using the plan to access a 5G or LTE connection to its network. The company says it's rolling out the plan to "show what a truly powerful 5G network can do for consumers."

Magenta Max will replace the carrier's existing Magneta Plus plan on February 24th. For a limited time, T-Mobile says you can get the plan for $47 per month — but that's if you have three lines on your account already and you take advantage of its autopay promotion. Single-line customers can look forward to paying $85 per month with autopay. Alongside the plan, the carrier is introducing a promotion for those who want to switch. If you come with your own device to the carrier, it will port your phone number for free. Additionally, current AT&T and Verizon (Engadget's parent company) customers can get up to $650 in the form of a prepaid card when they switch over.

Regular Magenta customers can also look forward to something new. The plan now comes with 100GB of premium data, up from the 50GB it has come with since 2017. It now also includes 5GB of high-speed tethering data, up from the 3GB it came with previously.

Elon Musk Says SpaceX ‘Will Double’ Starlink Satellite Internet Speeds Later this Year
Michael Sheetz

• SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says the company’s Starlink satellite internet service “will double” speeds to customers “later this year.”
• Starlink is a capital-intensive project to build an interconnected internet network with thousands of satellites, designed to deliver high-speed internet to consumers anywhere on the planet.
• “Speed will double to ~300Mb/s & latency will drop to ~20ms later this year,” Musk said in a tweet on Monday.
• Musk added that Starlink will reach customers around “most” of the Earth by the end of 2021, and is expecting to have complete global coverage “by next year.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the company’s Starlink satellite internet service “will double” speeds to customers “later this year,” as it continues to build out the global consumer network.

“Speed will double to ~300Mb/s & latency will drop to ~20ms later this year,” Musk said in a tweet on Monday, responding to a user who showed speed tests ranging between 77 and 130 Mbps.

Latency is the amount of delay in an internet network, defining how much time it takes a signal to travel back and forth from a destination. Latency and download speeds are key measures for an internet service provider.

In a following tweet, Musk added that Starlink will reach customers around “most” of the Earth by the end of 2021 and is expecting to have complete global coverage “by next year.”

He emphasized that Starlink, like other satellite broadband services, is intended for customers in “low to medium population density area.”

“Cellular will always have the advantage in dense urban areas,” Musk said.

Starlink is a capital-intensive project to build an interconnected internet network with thousands of satellites, known in the space industry as a constellation, designed to deliver high-speed internet to consumers anywhere on the planet.

SpaceX leadership has previously estimated Starlink will cost about $10 billion or more to build but believes that the network could bring in as much as $30 billion a year — or more than 10 times the annual revenue of its existing rocket business.

SpaceX two weeks ago completed an equity raise of $850 million, CNBC reported on Tuesday, with the funds expected to go toward both Starlink and Starship, its other ambitious development project.

To date SpaceX has launched more than 1,000 satellites for Starlink. In October, SpaceX began rolling out early service in a public beta to customers in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., with service priced at $99 a month, plus a $499 upfront cost for the hardware needed to connect to the network.

The company recently widened the scope of that public beta, allowing prospective users to place preorders for Starlink service. SpaceX, in a filing with the Federal Communications Commission earlier this month, disclosed that Starlink has “over 10,000 users in the United States and abroad,” in just over three months since the public beta began.

SpaceX noted in that FCC filing that Starlink’s service is “meeting and exceeding 100/20 megabits per second (‘Mbps’) throughput to individual users,” while most users were seeing latency “at or below 31 milliseconds.”

Verizon Leads 5G Airwave Bidding With Record $45 Billion Splurge
Todd Shields and Scott Moritz

• AT&T is second at $23 billion in bids, followed by T-Mobile
• FCC releases results of so-called C-band airwaves sale

Verizon Communications Inc. committed $45 billion for 5G wireless airwaves in a government auction that attracted record bidding as the largest U.S. mobile carriers race to build faster networks.

At $23 billion, AT&T Inc. was the second-highest bidder, according to the Federal Communications Commission, which ran the auction. Participants also included T-Mobile US Inc. and pay-TV providers such as Dish Network Corp., Comcast Corp. and Charter Communications Inc. Some have already tapped the debt market to help pay the tab. The auction started in December, and within days the tally exceeded analysts’ estimates of $47 billion before settling at $81.2 billion.

T-Mobile rose as much as 4.9% to $125.28 in after-hours trading Wednesday. Verizon and AT&T were little changed.

The budget-stretching bidding underscores how crucial these so-called midband frequencies are to companies trying to seize global leadership in emerging 5G technology. The airwaves are prized for their combined ability to travel far and carry lots of data. They are expected to drive years of growth when deployed for next-generation mobile devices, autonomous vehicles, health-care equipment and manufacturing facilities.

With the backing of its controlling stockholder, Deutsche Telekom AG, T-Mobile spent $9.3 billion to build on an already-large holding of midband 2.5-gigahertz airwaves gained with the takeover of Sprint Corp. in April.

In addition to the airwaves licenses, winning bidders also will pay an estimated $13 billion or more to current users of the airwaves, including satellite providers Intelsat SA and SES SA. The satellite companies will move to different frequencies to make room for the 5G providers.

FCC Proposes Rules for Emergency Broadband Program to Keep Struggling Families Online
Devin Coldewey

The FCC has taken a major step toward offering financial support for people struggling to pay broadband bills during the pandemic. If approved, the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program could provide $50 per month to millions of households, and more in tribal lands.

The EBBP was created in the budget passed by Congress earlier this year, which earmarked $3.2 billion to offset the cost of broadband in households already struggling to make ends meet.

“From work to healthcare to education, this crisis has made it clear that without an internet connection too many households are locked out of modern life,” said acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement. “It’s more apparent than ever that broadband is no longer nice-to-have. It’s need-to-have. But too many of us are struggling to afford this critical service.”

The general shape of the EBBP was already known, but since Congress first proposed it last year it has been up to the FCC to decide what it would actually look like. The rules for the program Rosenworcel circulated at the agency today are an important step in taking it from idea to reality.

The important bit is spelling out exactly who qualifies for the benefit — to wit, anyone who:

• Qualifies for the FCC’s existing Lifeline connectivity subsidy program
• Receives free and reduce-price school lunch or breakfast benefits
• Received a Pell Grant
• Meets other eligibility requirements for internet providers’ existing low-income or pandemic-related programs
• “Experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020”

That last one is a bit vague, and I’ve asked the FCC for more details (the proposed rules are not yet public). It may involve something like qualifying for unemployment benefits or showing a given percentage reduction in income. Depending on exactly what is specified it could greatly increase the scope of the program. I’ve asked the FCC for more details.

Most qualifying households would get $50 per month, and those living on tribal lands would get $75 per month. There’s also the possibility of a one-time $100 to help cover the cost of a device purchased from certain providers.

Unfortunately there are plenty more steps before anyone is likely to get these discounts. The FCC will have to approve and vote on the rules, which even at the fastest pace may take a couple months. And then there is a period of considering requests from providers, which could take up further time. All told it could take as few as three months if everything goes at maximum speed, or much more than that if they get bogged down in red tape.

Now that the rules are at least set down, though, it is likely only a matter of time — a small comfort to those having trouble making ends meet, but it’s something to look forward to.

YouTube AI Blocked Chess Channel after Confusing 'Black' and 'White' for Racist Slurs

Although the channel was restored within 24 hours, YouTube did not explain why the Croatian chess player Antonio Radic was blocked.
Buzz Staff

Did YouTube block a chess channel over violation of community guideline and usage of racist language? Late last year, a YouTuber who produces popular chess videos found that his channel was blocked over charges of 'harmful and dangerous' content.

Even though the channel was restored within 24 hours, the YouTube did not explain why it had blocked Croatian chess player Antonio Radic, also known as 'Agadmator,' from its platform briefly, the Dailymail reported.

Experts suspect that it was the usage of words like "black" and "white" that confused the Yutube's AI filters. They found that 80% of chess videos that were flagged for hate speech actually ahd terms like 'black,' 'white,' 'attack' and 'threat.'

The researchers now suggest that social-media platforms should incorporate chess language in their algorithms to avoid future incidents like this.

Agadmator has over a million subscribers on his channel and is considered the most popular chess vertical on YouTube. However, his channel was blocked in June last year after he posted a segment with Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, a five-time champion and the youngest American to earn the title of Grandmaster.

Youtube uses AI algorithms and human moderators to filter out prohibited content. But in this case, the algorithm couldn't differentiate between hate speech and normal conversation.

"We don't know what tools YouTube uses, but if they rely on artificial intelligence to detect racist language, this kind of accident can happen," Ashiqur R KhudaBukhsh, a computer scientist at Carnegie Melon's Language Technologies Institute, was quoted as saying.

To test whether it was the use of terms like black and white that led to suspension of the Youtube channel, KhudaBukhsh and fellow researcher Rupak Sarkar ran some tests on speech classifiers, AI software that is trained to detect hate speech.

The duo used the software on more than 680,000 comments from five popular YouTube chess channels. They found 82%of the comments flagged in a sample set didn't include any obvious racist language or hate speech, but words such as 'black,' 'white,' 'attack' and 'threat' seemed to have set off the filters, KhudaBukhsh and Sarkar found.

Thirty three-year-old Radić started his YouTube channel in 2017 and has more than a millions subscribers. His most popular video, a review of a 1962 match, has garnered more than 5.5 million views.

The Muppet Show: Disney+ Adds Content Warning of 'Negative Depictions of Cultures'

Studio says it is acknowledging and contextualising culturally offensive material rather than cutting it
Natasha May

Disney+ has added a new disclaimer to old episodes of The Muppet Show, warning of “negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures” throughout the series.

The platform began streaming Jim Henson’s family variety show on 19 February but prefaced 18 of its episodes with a content advisory that adds: “These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.”

Disney+ has added an on-screen content advisory to films that include “negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures.”

The message displays prior to several films including Lady and the Tramp, Jungle Book Aristocats, Dumbo, Peter Pan, and Swiss Family Robinson. pic.twitter.com/C9m2wOgQ7i
— Scott Gustin (@ScottGustin) October 15, 2020

The Muppet Show ran from 1976 to 1981 and was guest hosted by some of the biggest stars of the time.

According to Variety, episodes that now open with the disclaimer includes those hosted by Steve Martin, Johnny Cash, Peter Sellers, Debbie Harry, Spike Milligan, Kenny Rogers, Marty Feldman and Joan Baez.

Disney+ has not detailed the “negative depictions” that necessitated each content warning but, in one episode, from season five in 1980, Johnny Cash performs while standing in front of a Confederate flag, which has a longstanding association with white supremacy.

In another, from season three, Spike Milligan appears in a multitude of caricatured national costumes as part of a performance of It’s a Small World After All, including as a Chinese person with exaggerated front teeth and a long braid.

In a 1978 episode, Peter Sellers appears in a segment titled A Gypsy’s Violin wearing a black headscarf with gilded trimmings, a red vest and a large red satin belt, and singing in a heavy accent lines such as: “Once his love gave him golden earring / And now the ears are turning green.”

Disney+ has applied the same disclaimer to other 20th-century content it has been streaming to contemporary audiences , as part of its “Stories Matter” initiative, which was launched to improve representation in its output.

The company has hired external advisers to assess the content, and has chosen to acknowledge and contextualise offensive material, while bringing classic programs and films to a modern audience. “Rather than removing this content, we see an opportunity to spark conversation and open dialogue on history that affects us all,” the company said.

The same disclaimer now appears at the start of Disney+ streams of Lady and the Tramp, The Jungle Book, The Aristocats, Dumbo, Peter Pan and Swiss Family Robinson. Yet while the Stories Matter website describes why scenes from The Aristocats, Dumbo, Peter Pan, and Swiss Family Robinson were deemed offensive, no explanations have been provided for the warnings added to The Muppet Show.

Disney+ was approached for comment.

Google TV ‘Basic’ Mode will Strip Smart Features, Apps on TVs from TCL, Sony, Others
Ben Schoon

Google TV is the company’s next effort to rule the living room, picking up on the progress that Android TV made over half a decade. The first smart TVs running on top of Google TV have yet to hit the market, but when they do, they’ll come with a “Basic TV” feature that strips smart features from the TV.

This new “Basic TV” option appears at setup for television sets running on Google TV, not set-top boxes. Presumably, this could also be used on soundbars like the JBL Link Bar, but so far, it’s unclear if a sequel to that product is in the pipeline.

Regardless of what it’s running on, the idea behind this version of Google TV is to strip away essentially all of the features that make a smart TV… smart. It goes beyond the “apps-only” mode we saw on Chromecast with Google TV too.

During setup, as pictured below, the OS lists out five core features of your TV, including:

Content Recommendations
Google Assistant
Live TV
External Inputs (HDMI)

With the full Google TV experience, users get all of the above. It’s the same experience found on the new Chromecast. With “Basic TV,” almost everything is stripped, leaving users with just HDMI inputs and Live TV if they have an antenna plugged directly into the TV. Casting support, too, is dropped.

In this experience, Google’s homescreen is bare. It shows only a handful of icons, presumably to HDMI inputs, live channels, and there’s also a dedicated button for the “Dashboard,” the right-hand tray that holds a settings button, the time, and also a shortcut to ambient mode which is still live in Google TV’s “Basic TV” mode, albeit without personalized photos.

We can’t show you much of what this UI looks like yet because the device it’s running on, the ADT-3 dongle, lacks the live TV and HDMI inputs needed to trigger most of these other UI elements. Presumably, though, this will look a lot like the homescreen you see on a TV with Roku OS built-in when the internet is never connected.

It’s worth noting, too, that users who opt for this experience can switch back to the full Google TV UI whenever they please. There’s a constant shortcut on the homescreen as well as a prominent button in the settings menu. You can’t easily go in the other direction, though. That process requires a full reset.

Google confirmed to 9to5Google that this feature is not tied to Android TV 12, where we first spotted it, but will apply to TVs sold with Google TV running the show. This apparently includes the previously announced Sony and TCL models coming this year, but we’re not sure if it will ever apply to current Android TVs.

According to a Google spokesperson, this feature is designed firstly with users who lack internet access in mind, but it comes in handy beyond that. The reality of smart TVs is that the software isn’t relevant forever, and performance can degrade over time. So being able to turn off the smart TV portion leaves the panel potentially useful for years to come without interference. It also makes Google TV models a bit more attractive to people who don’t want a smart TV, as one quick choice at setup turns it into a dumb TV.

Who Is Still Buying VHS Tapes?

Despite the rise of streaming, there is still a vast library of moving images that are categorically unavailable anywhere else. Also a big nostalgia factor.
Hannah Selinger

The last VCR, according to Dave Rodriguez, 33, a digital repository librarian at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., was produced in 2016, by the Funai Electric in Osaka, Japan. But the VHS tape itself may be immortal. Today, a robust marketplace exists, both virtually and in real life, for this ephemera.

On Instagram, sellers tout videos for sale, like the 2003 Jerry Bruckheimer film “Kangaroo Jack,” a comedy involving a beauty salon owner — played by Jerry O’Connell — and a kangaroo. Asking price? $190. (Mr. O’Connell commented on the post from his personal account, writing, “Hold steady. Price seems fair. It is a Classic.”)

If $190 feels outrageous for a film about a kangaroo accidentally coming into money, consider the price of a limited-edition copy of the 1989 Disney film “The Little Mermaid,” which is listed on Etsy for $45,000. The cover art for this hard-to-find copy is said to contain a male anatomical part drawn into a sea castle.

There is, it turns out, much demand for these old VHS tapes, price tags notwithstanding, and despite post-2006 advancements in technology. Driving the passionate collection of this form of media is the belief that VHS offers something that other types of media cannot.

“The general perception that people can essentially order whatever movie they want from home is flat-out wrong,” said Matthew Booth, 47, the owner of Videodrome in Atlanta, which sells VHS tapes in addition to its Blu-ray and DVD rental business.

Streaming, Mr. Booth said, was “promised as a giant video store on the internet, where a customer was only one click away from the exact film they were looking for.”

But the reality, he said, is that new releases are prohibitively expensive, content is “fractured” between subscription services, and movies operate in cycles, often disappearing before people have the chance to watch them. In that sense, the VHS tape offers something the current market cannot: a vast library of moving images that are unavailable anywhere else.

“Anything that you can think of is on VHS tape, because, you’ve got to think, it was a revolutionary piece of the media,” said Josh Schafer, 35, of Raleigh, N.C., a founder and the editor in chief of Lunchmeat Magazine and LunchmeatVHS.com, which are dedicated to the appreciation and preservation of VHS. “It was a way for everyone to capture something and then put it out there.”

There is, Mr. Schafer said, “just so much culture packed into VHS,” from reels depicting family gatherings to movies that just never made the jump to DVD. Mr. Schafer owns a few thousand tapes himself, and his collection, he said, includes “a little bit of everything,” including other people’s home videos.

Michael Myerz, 29, an experimental hip-hop artist in Atlanta, who has a modest collection of VHS tapes, finds the medium inspirational. Some of what Mr. Myerz seeks in his work, he said, is to replicate the sounds from “some weird, obscure movie on VHS I would have seen at my friend’s house, late at night, after his parents were asleep.” He described his work as “mid-lo-fi.” “The quality feels raw but warm and full of flavor,” he said of VHS.

For collectors like April Bleakney, 35, the owner and artist of Ape Made, a fine art and screen-printing company in Cleveland, nostalgia plays a significant role in collecting. Ms. Bleakney, who has between 2,400 to 2,500 VHS tapes, views them as a byway connecting her with the past. She inherited some of them from her grandmother, a children’s librarian with a vast collection.

Ms. Bleakney’s VHS tapes are “huge nostalgia,” she said, for a child of the 1980s. “I think we were the last to grow up without the internet, cellphones or social media,” and clinging to the “old analog ways,” she said, feels “very natural.”

“I think that people are nostalgic for the aura of the VHS era,” said Thomas Allen Harris, 58, a creator of the television series “Family Pictures USA” and a senior lecturer in African-American studies and film and media studies at Yale University. “So many cultural touch points are rooted there,” Mr. Harris said of the 1980s. It was, he believes, “a time when, in some ways, Americans knew who we were.”

The VHS tape, of course, had a life span. Developed in Japan in 1976, brought to the United States in 1977, and essentially discontinued in 2006 when films stopped converting to tape, this medium brought all kinds of entertainment home.

Not only could film connoisseurs peruse the aisles of video stores on Friday nights, but they could also compose home movies, from the artful to the inane. In an era that preceded DVR technology, they could tape episodes of television with the record function of the now-defunct VCR.

“In its heyday, it was mass-produced and widely adopted,” Mr. Rodriguez said of the VHS tape. “So if anyone — a movie studio, an independent filmmaker, a parent shooting their kid’s first steps, etc. — wanted a way to make moving images cheaply, easily, and show them to the world, VHS had you covered.”

The tapes, said James Chapman, a professor of film studies at the University of Leicester in Britain and the editor of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, were “the first technology that allowed mass, large-scale home media access to films.” For many, that singular contribution is not easily forgotten.

This access often offered a window into a specific moment in time, said Kevin Arrow, 58, an artist and museum professional in Miami who helped found Obsolete Media Miami, a grant-funded project that gave visual artists access to forms of arcane media, like 35-millimeter slides, film cameras and VHS tapes.

Mr. Arrow said that home videos captured on VHS, or taped television programs that contain old commercials and snippets from the news, are particularly insightful in diving into cultural history. “Sometimes you’ll be lucky,” he said. “There’ll be a news break, and you’ll see, like: Oh my god, O.J.’s still in the Bronco, and it’s on the news, and then it’ll cut back to ‘Mission Impossible’ or something.”

Mr. Arrow also noted the importance of the video store, itself a somewhat obsolete idea; the Blockbuster video rental chain, which once owned more than 9,000 stores worldwide, now has one remaining branch, in Bend, Ore.

“It was like going to a supermarket,” Mr. Arrow said. “You were browsing. You might look on the wall for new releases, or you might look on the wall for the video store employees pick of the week.” The tactile sensation of selecting a movie, he said, no longer exists in the current landscape of Netflix, Amazon and other on-demand rental providers.

The VHS tape brings more than variety and nostalgia to the table, though. Marginalized communities, Mr. Harris said, who were not well represented in media in the 1980s, benefited from VHS technology, which allowed them to create an archival system that now brings to life people and communities that were otherwise absent from the screen.

The nature of VHS, Mr. Harris said, made self-documentation “readily available,” so that people who lacked representation could “begin to build a library, an archive, to affirm their existence and that of their community.”

Some who are rooted in the world of VHS hope that what is currently an underground culture will become mainstream again. Record players, Mr. Schafer pointed out have enjoyed a surge in popularity, and it’s possible that consumers can expect the same from the humble VCR.

But whether or not the VCR makes a complete comeback, VHS enthusiasts agree that these tapes occupy an irreplaceable place in culture. “It’s like a time capsule,” Mr. Myerz said. “The medium is like no other.”

Il Maestro

Federico Fellini and the lost magic of cinema
Martin Scorsese


CAMERA IN NONSTOP MOTION is on the shoulder of a young man, late teens, intently walking west on a busy Greenwich Village thoroughfare.

Under one arm, he’s carrying books. In his other hand, a copy of The Village Voice.

He walks quickly, past men in coats and hats, women with scarves over their heads pushing collapsible shopping carts, couples holding hands, and poets and hustlers and musicians and winos, past drugstores, liquor stores, delis, apartment buildings.

But the young man is zeroed in on one thing: the marquee of the Art Theatre, which is playing John Cassavetes’s Shadows and Claude Chabrol’s Les Cousins.

He makes a mental note and then crosses Fifth Avenue and keeps walking west, past bookstores and record shops and recording studios and shoe stores, until he gets to the 8th Street Playhouse: The Cranes Are Flying and Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless is coming soon!

We stay on him as he turns left on Sixth Avenue and hustles his way past diners and more liquor stores and newsstands and a cigar store and crosses the street to get a good look at the Waverly marquee—Ashes and Diamonds.

He cuts back east on West 4th past Kettle of Fish and Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South, where a man in a threadbare suit is handing out leaflets: Anita Ekberg in furs, and La Dolce Vita is opening at a legitimate theater on Broadway, with reserved seats for sale at Broadway ticket prices!

He walks down LaGuardia Place to Bleecker, past the Village Gate and the Bitter End to the Bleecker Street Cinema, which is showing Through a Glass Darkly, Shoot the Piano Player, and Love at Twenty—and La Notte is held over for a third straight month!

He gets in line for the Truffaut movie and opens his copy of the Voice to the Film section and a cornucopia of riches jumps from the pages and swirls around him—Winter Light . . . Pickpocket . . . The Third Lover . . . The Hand in the Trap . . . Andy Warhol screenings . . . Pigs and Battleships . . . Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage at Anthology Film Archives . . . Le Doulos . . . and in the midst of it all, looming larger than the rest: joseph e. levine presents federico fellini’s 8½!

As he pores over the pages, the CAMERA RISES ABOVE HIM and the waiting crowd, as if on the waves of their excitement.

Flash forward to the present day, as the art of cinema is being systematically devalued, sidelined, demeaned, and reduced to its lowest common denominator, “content.”

As recently as fifteen years ago, the term “content” was heard only when people were discussing the cinema on a serious level, and it was contrasted with and measured against “form.” Then, gradually, it was used more and more by the people who took over media companies, most of whom knew nothing about the history of the art form, or even cared enough to think that they should. “Content” became a business term for all moving images: a David Lean movie, a cat video, a Super Bowl commercial, a superhero sequel, a series episode. It was linked, of course, not to the theatrical experience but to home viewing, on the streaming platforms that have come to overtake the moviegoing experience, just as Amazon overtook physical stores. On the one hand, this has been good for filmmakers, myself included. On the other hand, it has created a situation in which everything is presented to the viewer on a level playing field, which sounds democratic but isn’t. If further viewing is “suggested” by algorithms based on what you’ve already seen, and the suggestions are based only on subject matter or genre, then what does that do to the art of cinema?

Curating isn’t undemocratic or “elitist,” a term that is now used so often that it’s become meaningless. It’s an act of generosity—you’re sharing what you love and what has inspired you. (The best streaming platforms, such as the Criterion Channel and MUBI and traditional outlets such as TCM, are based on curating—they’re actually curated.) Algorithms, by definition, are based on calculations that treat the viewer as a consumer and nothing else.

The choices made by distributors such as Amos Vogel at Grove Press back in the Sixties were not just acts of generosity but, quite often, of bravery. Dan Talbot, who was an exhibitor and a programmer, started New Yorker Films in order to distribute a film he loved, Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution—not exactly a safe bet. The pictures that came to these shores thanks to the efforts of these and other distributors and curators and exhibitors made for an extraordinary moment. The circumstances of that moment are gone forever, from the primacy of the theatrical experience to the shared excitement over the possibilities of cinema. That’s why I go back to those years so often. I feel lucky to have been young and alive and open to all of it as it was happening. The cinema has always been much more than content, and it always will be, and the years when those films were coming out from all over the world, talking to each other and redefining the art form on a weekly basis, are the proof.

In essence, these artists were constantly grappling with the question “What is cinema?” and then throwing it back for the next film to answer. No one was operating in a vacuum, and everybody seemed to be responding to and feeding off everybody else. Godard and Bertolucci and Antonioni and Bergman and Imamura and Ray and Cassavetes and Kubrick and Varda and Warhol were reinventing cinema with each new camera movement and each new cut, and more established filmmakers such as Welles and Bresson and Huston and Visconti were reenergized by the surge in creativity around them.

At the center of it all, there was one director whom everyone knew, one artist whose name was synonymous with cinema and what it could do. It was a name that instantly evoked a certain style, a certain attitude toward the world. In fact, it became an adjective. Let’s say you wanted to describe the surreal atmosphere at a dinner party, or a wedding, or a funeral, or a political convention, or for that matter, the madness of the entire planet—all you had to do was say the word “Felliniesque” and people knew exactly what you meant.

In the Sixties, Federico Fellini became more than a filmmaker. Like Chaplin and Picasso and the Beatles, he was much bigger than his own art. At a certain point, it was no longer a matter of this or that film but all the films combined as one grand gesture written across the galaxy. Going to see a Fellini film was like going to hear Callas sing or Olivier act or Nureyev dance. His films even started to incorporate his name—Fellini Satyricon, Fellini’s Casanova. The only comparable example in film was Hitchcock, but that was something else: a brand, a genre in and of itself. Fellini was the cinema’s virtuoso.

By now, he has been gone for almost thirty years. The moment in time when his influence seemed to permeate all of culture is long past. That’s why Criterion’s box set, Essential Fellini, released last year to mark the centennial of his birth, is so welcome.

Fellini’s absolute visual mastery began in 1963 with 8½, in which the camera hovers and floats and soars between inner and outer realities, tuned to the shifting moods and secret thoughts of Fellini’s alter ego, Guido, played by Marcello Mastroianni. I watch passages in that picture, which I’ve gone back to more times than I can count, and still find myself wondering: How did he do it? How is it that each movement and gesture and gust of wind seems to fall perfectly into place? How is it that it all feels uncanny and inevitable, as in a dream? How could every moment be so rich with inexplicable longing?

Sound played a big part in this mood. Fellini was as creative with sound as he was with images. Italian cinema has a long tradition of nonsync sound that began under Mussolini, who decreed that all films imported from other countries must be dubbed. In many Italian pictures, even some of the great ones, the sense of disembodied sound can be disorienting. Fellini knew how to use that disorientation as an expressive tool. The sounds and the images in his pictures play off and enhance one another in such a way that the entire cinematic experience moves like music, or like a great unfurling scroll. Nowadays, people are dazzled by the latest technological tools and what they can do. But lighter digital cameras and postproduction techniques such as digital stitching and morphing don’t make the movie for you: it’s about the choices you make in the creation of the whole picture. For the greatest artists such as Fellini, no element is too small—everything counts. I’m sure that he would have been thrilled by lightweight digital cameras, but they wouldn’t have changed the rigor and the precision of his aesthetic choices.

It’s important to remember that Fellini began in neorealism, which is interesting because in many ways he came to represent its polar opposite. He was actually one of the people who invented neorealism, in collaboration with his mentor Roberto Rossellini. That moment still astonishes me. It was the inspiration for so much in cinema, and I doubt that all the creativity and exploration of the Fifties and Sixties would have occurred without neorealism to build on. It was not so much a movement as a group of film artists responding to an unimaginable moment in the life of their nation. After twenty years of Fascism, after so much cruelty and terror and destruction, how did one carry on—as individuals and as a country? The films of Rossellini and De Sica and Visconti and Zavattini and Fellini and others, films in which aesthetics and morality and spirituality were so closely intertwined that they couldn’t be separated, played a vital role in the redemption of Italy in the eyes of the world.

Fellini co-wrote Rome, Open City and Paisà (he also reportedly stepped in to direct a few scenes in the Florentine episode when Rossellini was ill), and he co-wrote and acted in Rossellini’s The Miracle. His path as an artist obviously diverged from Rossellini’s early on, but they maintained a great mutual love and respect. And Fellini once said something quite astute: that what people described as neorealism truly existed only in the films of Rossellini and nowhere else. Bicycle Thieves, Umberto D., and La Terra Trema aside, I think Fellini meant that Rossellini was the only one with such a deep and abiding trust in simplicity and humanity, the only one who worked to allow life itself to come as close as possible to telling its own story. Fellini, by contrast, was a stylist and a fabulist, a magician and a teller of tales, but the grounding in lived experience and in ethics he received from Rossellini was crucial to the spirit of his pictures.

I came of age as Fellini was developing and blossoming as an artist, and so many of his pictures became precious to me. I saw La Strada, the story of a poor young woman sold to a traveling strongman, when I was about thirteen, and it hit me in a particular way. Here was a film that was set in postwar Italy but unfolded like a medieval ballad, or something even further back, an emanation from the ancient world. This could also be said of La Dolce Vita, I think, but that was a panorama, a pageant of modern life and spiritual disconnection. La Strada, released in 1954 (and in the United States two years later), was a smaller canvas, a fable grounded in the elemental: earth, sky, innocence, cruelty, affection, destruction.

For me, it had an added dimension. I watched it for the first time with my family on television, and the story rang true to my grandparents as a reflection of the hardships they’d left behind in the old country. La Strada was not well received in Italy. To some it was a betrayal of neorealism (many Italian pictures at the time were judged by this standard), and I suppose that setting such a harsh story within the framework of a fable was just too odd for many Italian viewers. Around the rest of the world, it was a massive success, the film that really made Fellini. It was the picture for which Fellini seemed to have labored the longest and suffered the most—his shooting script was so detailed that it ran to six hundred pages, and near the end of the extremely difficult production he had a psychological breakdown and had to go through the first (I believe) of many psychoanalyses before he was able to finish shooting. It was also the film that, for the rest of his life, he held closest to his heart.

Nights of Cabiria, a series of fantastic episodes in the life of a Roman streetwalker (the inspiration for the Broadway musical and Bob Fosse film Sweet Charity), solidified his reputation. Like everyone else, I found it emotionally overpowering. But the next great revelation was La Dolce Vita. It was an unforgettable experience to see that film alongside a packed audience when it was brand-new. La Dolce Vita was distributed here in 1961 by Astor Pictures and presented as a special event at a legitimate Broadway theater, with reserved mail-order seating and high-priced tickets—the kind of presentation we associated with biblical epics such as Ben-Hur. We took our seats, the lights went down, we watched a majestic, terrifying cinematic fresco unfold on the screen, and we all experienced the shock of recognition. Here was an artist who had managed to express the anxiety of the nuclear age, the sense that nothing really mattered anymore because everything and everyone could be annihilated at any moment. We felt this shock, but we also felt the exhilaration of Fellini’s love for the art of cinema—and, consequently, for life itself. Something similar was coming in rock and roll, in Dylan’s first electric albums and then in The White Album and Let It Bleed—they were about anxiety and despair, but they were thrilling and transcendent experiences.

When we presented the restoration of La Dolce Vita a decade ago in Rome, Bertolucci made a special point of attending. It was difficult for him to get around at that point because he was in a wheelchair and in constant pain, but he said he had to be there. And after the film, he confessed to me that La Dolce Vita was the reason he turned toward the cinema in the first place. I was genuinely surprised, because I’d never heard him discuss it. But in the end, it wasn’t so surprising. That picture was a galvanizing experience, like a shockwave that passed through the whole culture.

The two Fellini pictures that affected me the most, the ones that really marked me, were I Vitelloni and 8½. I Vitelloni because it captured something so real and so precious that related directly to my own experience. And 8½ because it redefined my idea of what cinema was—what it could do and where it could take you.

I Vitelloni, released in Italy in 1953 and three years later in the United States, was Fellini’s third film and his first truly great one. It was also one of his most personal. The story is a series of scenes from the lives of five friends in their twenties in Rimini, where Fellini grew up: Alberto, played by the great Alberto Sordi; Leopoldo, played by Leopoldo Trieste; Moraldo, Fellini’s alter ego, played by Franco Interlenghi; Riccardo, played by Fellini’s own brother; and Fausto, played by Franco Fabrizi. They spend their days shooting pool, chasing girls, and walking around making fun of people. They have grand dreams and schemes. They behave like children and their parents treat them accordingly. And life goes on.

I felt like I knew these guys from my own life, my own neighborhood. I even recognized some of the same body language, the same sense of humor. In fact, at a certain point in my life, I was one of these guys. I understood what Moraldo was experiencing, his desperation to get out. Fellini captured it all so well—immaturity, vanity, boredom, sadness, the search for the next distraction, the next surge of euphoria. He gives us the warmth and the camaraderie and the jokes and the sadness and the desperation within, all at once. I Vitelloni is a painfully lyrical and bittersweet film, and it was a pivotal inspiration for Mean Streets. It’s a great movie about a hometown. Anybody’s hometown.

As for 8½: Everyone I knew back in those days who was trying to make movies had a turning point, a personal touchstone. Mine was, and still is, 8½.

What do you do after you’ve made a picture like La Dolce Vita that has taken the world by storm? Everybody’s hanging on your every word, waiting to see what you’re going to do next. That’s what happened with Dylan in the mid-Sixties after Blonde on Blonde. For Fellini and for Dylan, the situation was the same: they had touched legions of people, everyone felt like they knew them, like they understood them, and, often, like they owned them. So, pressure. Pressure from the public, from the fans, from critics and enemies (and the fans and the enemies often feel like they’re one and the same). Pressure to produce more. Pressure to go further. Pressure from yourself, on yourself.

For Dylan and Fellini, the answer was to venture inward. Dylan sought simplicity in the spiritual sense meant by Thomas Merton, and he found it after his motorcycle accident in Woodstock, where he recorded The Basement Tapes and wrote the songs for John Wesley Harding.

Fellini started with his own situation in the early Sixties, and made a film about his artistic breakdown. In so doing, he undertook a risky expedition into uncharted territory: his interior world. His alter ego, Guido, is a famous director suffering from the cinematic equivalent of writer’s block, and he’s looking for a refuge, for peace and for guidance, as an artist and as a human being. He goes for a “cure” at a luxurious spa, where his mistress, his wife, his anxious producer, his prospective actors, his crew, and a motley procession of fans and hangers-on and fellow spa-goers quickly descend upon him—among them is a critic, who proclaims that his new script “lacks a central conflict or philosophical premise” and amounts to “a series of gratuitous episodes.” The pressure intensifies, his childhood memories and longings and fantasies arrive unexpectedly through his days and his nights, and he waits for his muse—who comes and goes, fleetingly, in the form of Claudia Cardinale—to “create order.”

8½ is a tapestry woven from Fellini’s dreams. As in a dream, everything seems solid and well-defined on the one hand and floating and ephemeral on the other; the tone keeps shifting, sometimes violently. He actually created a visual stream of consciousness that keeps the viewer in a state of surprise and alertness, and a form that constantly redefines itself as it goes along. You’re basically watching Fellini make the film before your eyes, because the creative process is the structure. Many filmmakers have tried to do something along these lines, but I don’t think anyone else has ever achieved what Fellini did here. He had the audacity and the confidence to play with every creative tool, to stretch the plastic quality of the image to a point where everything seems to exist on some subconscious level. Even the most seemingly neutral frames, when you take a really close look, have some element in the lighting or the composition that throws you off, that is somehow infused with Guido’s consciousness. After a while, you stop trying to figure out where you are, whether you’re in a dream or a flashback or just plain reality. You want to stay lost and wander with Fellini, surrendering to the authority of his style.

The picture reaches a peak in a scene where Guido meets the cardinal at the baths, a journey to the underworld in search of an oracle, and a return to the clay from which we all originate. As it is throughout the picture, the camera is in motion—restless, hypnotic, floating, always bearing toward something inevitable, something revelatory. As Guido makes his way down, we see from his point of view a succession of people approaching him, some advising him on how to ingratiate himself with the cardinal and some pleading for favors. He enters an anteroom filled with steam and makes his way to the cardinal, whose attendants hold a muslin shroud in front of him as he disrobes—we see him only as a shadow. Guido tells the cardinal that he’s unhappy, and the cardinal responds, simply, unforgettably: “Why should you be happy? That is not your task. Who told you that we come into the world in order to be happy?” Every shot in this scene, every piece of staging and choreography between camera and actors, is extraordinarily complex. I cannot imagine how difficult it all was to execute. Onscreen, it unfolds so gracefully that it looks like the easiest thing in the world. For me, the audience with the cardinal embodies a remarkable truth about 8½: Fellini made a film about film that could only exist as a film and nothing else—not a piece of music, not a novel, not a poem, not a dance, only as a work of cinema.

When 8½ was released people argued over it endlessly: the effect was that dramatic. We each had our own interpretation, and we would sit up till all hours talking about the film—every scene, every second. Of course we never settled on a definite interpretation—the only way to explain a dream is with the logic of a dream. The film doesn’t have a resolution, which bothered many people. Gore Vidal once told me that he said to Fellini, “Fred, less dreams next time, you must tell a story.” But in 8½, the lack of resolution is only right, because the artistic process doesn’t have a resolution either—you have to just keep going. When you’re done, you’re compelled to do it again, just like Sisyphus. And, as Sisyphus discovered, pushing the boulder up the hill again and again becomes the purpose of your life.

The movie had an enormous effect on filmmakers—it inspired Paul Mazursky’s Alex in Wonderland, in which Fellini appears as himself; Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories; and Fosse’s All That Jazz, not to mention the Broadway musical Nine. As I said, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen 8½, and I can’t even begin to talk about the many ways that it’s affected me. Fellini showed all of us what it was to be an artist, the overpowering need to create art. 8½ is the purest expression of love for the cinema that I know of.

Following up La Dolce Vita? Difficult. Following up 8½? I can’t imagine. With Toby Dammit, a medium-length picture inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe story (it’s the last third of an omnibus film called Spirits of the Dead), Fellini took his hallucinatory imagery to a razor-sharp level. The film is a visceral descent into hell. In Fellini Satyricon, he created something unprecedented: a fresco of the ancient world that was “science fiction in reverse,” as he called it. Amarcord, his semi-autobiographical film set in Rimini during the Fascist period, is now one of his most beloved pictures (it’s a favorite of Hou Hsiao-hsien, for example), though it’s far less daring than the earlier films. Still, it’s a work filled with extraordinary visions (I was fascinated by Italo Calvino’s special admiration for the film as a portrait of life in Mussolini’s Italy, something that didn’t really occur to me). After Amarcord, every picture had shards of brilliance, especially Fellini’s Casanova. It’s an ice-cold film, colder than the deepest circle of hell in Dante, and it’s a remarkable and daringly stylized but truly forbidding experience. It seemed like a turning point for Fellini. And in truth, the late Seventies and early Eighties seemed like a turning point for many filmmakers around the world, myself included. The sense of camaraderie that we had all felt, whether real or imagined, seemed to break apart, and everyone seemed to become her or his own island, fighting to make the next picture.

I knew Federico, well enough to call him a friend. We met for the first time in 1970, when I went to Italy with a group of short films I’d selected for a presentation in a film festival. I contacted Fellini’s office, and I was given about half an hour of his time. He was so warm, so cordial. I told him that on my first trip to Rome, I’d saved him and the Sistine Chapel for the last day. He laughed. “You see, Federico,” his assistant said, “you’ve become a boring monument!” I assured him that boring was the one thing he’d never be. I remember that I also asked him where I could find good lasagna, and he recommended a wonderful restaurant—Fellini knew all the best restaurants everywhere.

Several years later, I moved to Rome for a time and I began to see Fellini fairly often. We would run into each other and get together for a meal. He was always a showman, and the show never stopped. Watching him direct a movie was a remarkable experience. It was as if he were conducting a dozen orchestras at once. I took my parents to the set of City of Women, and he was running all over the place, cajoling, pleading, acting out, sculpting, and adjusting every element of the picture down to the last detail, realizing his vision in a swirl of nonstop motion. When we left, my father said, “I thought we were going to have our picture taken with Fellini.” I said, “You did!” Everything had happened so fast that they didn’t even know it had happened.

In the last years of his life, I tried to help him get his picture The Voice of the Moon distributed in the United States. He’d had a difficult time with his producers on that project—they wanted a grand Fellini extravaganza and he gave them something much more meditative and somber. No distributor would touch it, and I was truly shocked that no one, including any of the key independent theaters in New York, even wanted to show it. The old films, yes, but not the new one, which turned out to be his last. A little later, I helped Fellini get some funding for a documentary project he had planned, a series of portraits of the people who made movies: the actor, the cinematographer, the producer, the location manager (I remember that in the outline for that episode, the narrator explained that the most important thing was to organize expeditions so that locations were near a great restaurant). Sadly, he died before he could get started on the project. I remember the last time I spoke to him on the phone. His voice sounded so faint, and I could tell that he was fading. It was sad to see that incredible life force ebb away.

Everything has changed—the cinema and the importance it holds in our culture. Of course, it’s hardly surprising that artists such as Godard, Bergman, Kubrick, and Fellini, who once reigned over our great art form like gods, would eventually recede into the shadows with the passing of time. But at this point, we can’t take anything for granted. We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema. In the movie business, which is now the mass visual entertainment business, the emphasis is always on the word “business,” and value is always determined by the amount of money to be made from any given property—in that sense, everything from Sunrise to La Strada to 2001 is now pretty much wrung dry and ready for the “Art Film” swim lane on a streaming platform. Those of us who know the cinema and its history have to share our love and our knowledge with as many people as possible. And we have to make it crystal clear to the current legal owners of these films that they amount to much, much more than mere property to be exploited and then locked away. They are among the greatest treasures of our culture, and they must be treated accordingly.

I suppose we also have to refine our notions of what cinema is and what it isn’t. Federico Fellini is a good place to start. You can say a lot of things about Fellini’s movies, but here’s one thing that is incontestable: they are cinema. Fellini’s work goes a long way toward defining the art form.

Martin Scorsese is an Academy Award–winning director, writer, and producer.

Toshiba Unveils World's First FC-MAMR HDD: 18 TB, Helium Filled
Anton Shilov

Toshiba this week announced the industry's first hard drive featuring flux-control microwave-assisted magnetic recording (FC-MAMR) technology. The new MG09-series HDDs are designed primarily for nearline and enterprise applications, they offer an 18 TB capacity along with an ultra-low idle power consumption.

The Toshiba MG09-series 3.5-inch 18 TB HDD are based on the company's 3rd generation nine-platter helium sealed platform that features 18 heads with a microwave-emitting component which changes magnetic coercivity of the platters before writing data. The HD disks are made by Showa Denko K.K. (SDK), a long-time partner of Toshiba. Each aluminum platter is about 0.635 mm thick, it features an areal density of around 1.5 Tb/inch2 and can store up to 2 TB of data. The MG09 family also includes a 16 TB model which presumably features a lower number of platters (based on the same performance rating).

For modern enterprise and nearline 3.5-inch HDDs, Toshiba's MG09-series drives uses a motor with a 7200-RPM spindle speed. The HDDs are also equipped with a 512 MB buffer and are rated for a 281 MB/s maximum sustained data transfer rate. Unfortunately, Toshiba has not updated the random access performance of the new products, though it is likely that their per-TB IOPS performance is lower when compared to predecessors. The manufacturer will offer its new drives both with SATA 3.3 (6 Gbps) and SAS 3.0 (12 Gbps) interfaces as well as a selection of logical data block length.

One of the noteworthy things about Toshiba's MG09-series FC-MAMR HDDs is their power consumption. In active idle mode, they typically consume 4.16/4.54 Watts (SATA/SAS models), which is considerably lower when compared with Seagate's Exos X18 as well as Western Digital's Ultrastar DC HC550. As far as power consumption efficiency at idle (large hard drives could spend plenty of time idling) is concerned, the 18 TB MG09 is an undeniable champion consuming just 0.23 Watts per TB (in case of the SATA version). Meanwhile, the new drives are rated for 8.35/8.74 Watts (SATA/SAS SKUs) during read/write operations, which is higher when compared to the DC HC550 as well as predecessors from the MG07 and the MG08-series.

Brief Specifications of Toshiba's MG09 HDDs
Capacity 18 TB 16 TB
Platters 9 8
Heads 18 16
Recording Technology Flux-control microwave-assisted
magnetic recording (FC-MAMR)
RPM 7200 RPM
Interface SATA 6 Gbps/SAS 12 Gbps
DRAM Cache 512 MB
Persistent Write Cache Yes
Helium-Filling Yes
Sequential Data Transfer Rate (host to/from drive) 281 MB/s
MTBF 2.5 million
Rated Annual Workload 550 TB
Acoustics (idle) 20 dB
Power Consumption Random read/write SATA: 8.35 W
SAS: 8.74 W
Idle SATA: 4.16 W
SAS: 4.54 W
Warranty 5 Years

As the MG09 family of hard drives are intended for datacenter racks that accommodate hundreds of vibrating HDDs, they feature numerous enhancements to ensure consistent performance, reliability, and durability. Typically such enhancements include top and bottom attached motors, RVFF, as well as environmental sensors. Like all modern drives for 24/7 applications, Toshiba's MG09-series units are rated for a 550 TB average annualized workload, 2.5 million hours MTBF, and are covered with a standard five-year warranty.

Also, the new MG09 hard drives support Toshiba’s persistent write cache (PWC) with power loss protection (PLP) technology, which is crucial for 4K sector drives that emulate 512B sectors. The PWC with PLP feature guards data in case of power loss while performing read-modify-write (RMW) operation to align the source write request with the physical sectors it has to modify. This capability allows the company to address its clients who run legacy systems that still require high capacities. Also, the new MG09 family includes Sanitize Instant Erase (SIE) and Self Encrypting Drive (SED) models.

Toshiba has been working on its MG09-series FC-MAMR HDDs for at least two years already. Last year the company said it had made 'significant investments in manufacturing facilities' and promised to start shipments of its 18 TB hard drives by March 31, 2021. This week the company reaffirmed its plan and said it would begin sample shipments of its 18 TB MG09-series MAMR HDDs 'at the end of March 2021.'

Australia Passes Law to Make Google, Facebook Pay for News
Rod McGuirk

Australia’s law forcing Google and Facebook to pay for news is ready to take effect, though the laws’ architect said it will take time for the digital giants to strike media deals.

The Parliament on Thursday passed the final amendments to the so-called News Media Bargaining Code agreed between Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday.

In return for the changes, Facebook agreed to lift a ban on Australians accessing and sharing news.

Rod Sims, the competition regulator who drafted the code, said he was happy that the amended legislation would address the market imbalance between Australian news publishers and the two gateways to the internet.

“All signs are good,” Sims said.

“The purpose of the code is to address the market power that clearly Google and Facebook have. Google and Facebook need media, but they don’t need any particular media company, and that meant media companies couldn’t do commercial deals,” the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chair added.

The rest of the law had passed in Parliament earlier, so it can now be implemented.

Google has already struck deals with major Australian news businesses in recent weeks including News Corp. and Seven West Media.

Frydenberg said he was pleased to see progress by Google and more recently Facebook in reaching commercial deals with Australian news businesses.

But Country Press Australia, which represents 161 regional newspapers across the country, has raised concerns that tiny publications outside large cities might miss out.

Sims said he was not surprised that the platforms would strike deals with the large city businesses first.

“I don’t see any reason why anybody should doubt that all journalism will benefit,” Sims said.

“There things take time. Google and Facebook don’t have unlimited resources to go around talking to everybody. I think this has got a long way to play out,” he added.

Chris Moos, a lecturer at Oxford University’s Business School, said the latest amendments amounted to a “small victory” for Zuckerberg.

Moos said the legislation would likely result in small payouts for most Australian news publishers. But Facebook could again block Australian news if negotiations broke down.

The legislation was designed to curb the outsized bargaining power of Facebook and Google in their negotiations with Australian news providers. The digital giants would not be able to abuse their positions by making take-it-or-leave-it payment offers to news businesses for their journalism. Instead, in the case of a standoff, an arbitration panel would make a binding decision on a winning offer.

Frydenberg and Facebook confirmed that the two sides agreed to amendments to the proposed legislation. The changes would give digital platforms one month’s notice before they are formally designated under the code. That would give those involved more time to broker agreements before they are forced to enter binding arbitration arrangements.

Facebook Vice President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg said on Wednesday that the Australian law, without this week’s amendments, would have enabled media conglomerates to “demand a blank check.”

“Thankfully, after further discussion, the Australian government has agreed to changes that mean fair negotiations are encouraged without the looming threat of heavy-handed and unpredictable arbitration,” Clegg, a former British deputy prime minister, wrote in a Facebook post.

Facebook last week prevented Australians from sharing news, but also blocked access to pandemic, public health and emergency services.

The blockade was a response the House of Representatives passing the code last week in a form that Facebook considered “unworkable.”

Clegg said Facebook had “erred on the side of over-enforcement” and “some content was blocked inadvertently.”

Both Google and Facebook are pursuing Australian media deals under their own licensing models, Google News Showcase and Facebook News.

But media executives argue such deals would not be possible without the threat of an arbitration panel making final decisions.

Frydenberg said his department will review the code within a year to “ensure it is delivering outcomes that are consistent with government’s policy intent.”

Judge in Google Case Disturbed that 'Incognito' Users are Tracked
Joel Rosenblatt

When Google users browse in “Incognito” mode, just how hidden is their activity? The Alphabet Inc. unit says activating the stealth mode in Chrome, or “private browsing” in other browsers, means the company won’t “remember your activity.” But a judge with a history of taking Silicon Valley giants to task about their data collection raised doubts Thursday about whether Google is being as forthright as it needs to be about the personal information it’s collecting from users.

At a hearing Thursday in San Jose, California, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh said she’s “disturbed” by Google’s data collection practices in a class-action lawsuit that describes the company’s private browsing promises as a “ruse” and seeks US$5,000 in damages for each of the millions of people whose privacy has been compromised since June of 2016.

Weighing Google’s attempt to get the suit dismissed, Koh said she finds it “unusual” that the company would make the “extra effort” of data collection if it doesn’t use the information to build user profiles or targeted advertising. Google has become a target of antitrust complaints in the last year filed by state and federal officials -- as well as businesses -- accusing it of abusing its dominance in digital advertising and online search. Koh has a deeper history with the company as a vocal critic of its privacy policies. She forced Google in one notable case to disclose its scanning of emails to build profiles and target advertising.

In this case, Google is accused of relying on pieces of its code within websites that use its analytics and advertising services to scrape users’ supposedly private browsing history and send copies of it to Google’s servers. Google makes it seem like private browsing mode gives users more control of their data, Amanda Bonn, a lawyer representing users, told Koh. In reality, “Google is saying there’s basically very little you can do to prevent us from collecting your data, and that’s what you should assume we’re doing,” Bonn said.

Andrew Schapiro, a lawyer for Google, argued the company’s privacy policy “expressly discloses” its practices. “The data collection at issue is disclosed,” he said.Another lawyer for Google, Stephen Broome, said website owners who contract with the company to use its analytics or other services are well aware of the data collection described in the suit.

Broome’s attempt to downplay the privacy concerns by pointing out that the federal court system’s own website uses Google services ended up backfiring.

The judge demanded an explanation “about what exactly Google does,” while voicing concern that visitors to the court’s website are unwittingly disclosing information to the company. “I want a declaration from Google on what information they’re collecting on users to the court’s website, and what that’s used for,” Koh told the company’s lawyers. The case is Brown v. Google, 20-cv-03664, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Jose).

The Woman Bulldozing Video Games’ Toughest DRM

For Empress, cracking titles like Red Dead Redemption 2 and Immortals Fenyx Rising is more than a pastime. It's a mission.
Cecilia D'Anastasio

If you ask Empress what got her started breaking DRM, she says it was a dream she had one night in 2014. Chains made up of numbers wrapped around the video game Dark Souls 2. It was anti-piracy software, she realized. As she focused, she began to see “what every number meant ‘universally,’’’ she says. Turning deeper inward, she says, she soon entered “the ‘ZONE,’ which allows me to SEE MORE into everything.” The chains broke.

In the seven years since that vision, Empress has become arguably the most powerful breaker of digital rights management software in the world. Video game publishers—and ebook sellers and most other digital media hawkers—use DRM to retain control over your purchases. DRM crackers work to unlock those bits and bytes to achieve something closer to true ownership. From Red Dead Redemption 2 to Mortal Kombat 11, no one has liberated more high-profile games over the past year than Empress.

Almost every modern game has DRM, which publishers deploy to prevent piracy and cheating. But as long as video games have had copy protections, there have been people dedicated to cracking them wide open. Since at least the late ’80s, in tight-knit groups with names like SKIDROW and FAiRLiGHT, “crackers,” mostly young men, competed to dismantle the software barriers protecting popular contemporary games. It was a hobby, even a sport. Then came Denuvo, an anti-piracy juggernaut first introduced on FIFA 15 in 2014 and licensed and revalidated over 350 million times since.

The only surefire way to keep a game healthy and alive relied on a shift in power from publishers to pirates.

Denuvo is everywhere now, and it kicked old-school piracy groups’ asses. As an added deterrent, law enforcement has increasingly gone after some of the scene’s biggest pirate groups and personalities over the past couple years. As the old guard’s activity has dwindled, a new type of DRM-breaker has emerged: feverishly dedicated, mission-driven lone wolves. These peer-to-peer crackers see themselves as protecting games from game publishers and will spend any amount of time doing it. If you ask Empress how she got to this point, the most she’ll say is “by mixing philosophy with coding. It's very complicated.”

“I have a ‘Goal’ that no one else has,” she says. “I have no need for ‘Ego.’”

Empress won’t say where she is or when she began cracking games. Some have speculated that Empress is actually a collective of people, which she vehemently denies. Aside from her chosen handle, the only indication of her gender came in a fiery Reddit post from late October, addressed to “all the GENDER FREAKS out there who keep claiming out of their own ass that I am male.” In an interview with WIRED, Empress said, “i am 23 years old, and i am beautiful AS HELL. but i don't care 1 bit how i ‘look.’ i care of what i ‘Do.’”

She says her pivotal shōnen-character-development moment turned on Atari’s little-known, poorly reviewed 2011 online racing game Test Drive Unlimited 2—which, of course, she loves. When the studio that developed it shut down, she says, she had trouble accessing the game. Atari used the DRM software SecuROM—also present in hits like BioShock, Mass Effect and Spore—to protect Test Drive Unlimited 2 from pirates, but it kept presenting problems for players trying to buy the game on Steam.

Empress found a cracked, or DRM-disabled, version of Test Drive Unlimited 2 thanks to the piracy group Prophet. That’s when the wheels started turning: She couldn’t depend on publishers to preserve games she likes, she realized. They can just drop their support, and poof it goes, or at best she’d have to wait for someone else to fix DRM-related glitches. The only surefire way to keep a game healthy and alive relied on a shift in power from publishers to pirates.

“i think the main problem is that people ‘fail’ to see Video Games as the pinnacle and max potential of ‘art,’” she says.

Empress says that as a child she was a “very strange girl who did not like the ‘Real World’ as much as other people seem to.” More than the average gamer, she says, she has always taken games seriously not just as a way to pass the time, but as places to go and be. She loved Tetris on the NES, for when she wanted to “go ‘beyond’ the human limits in terms of ‘Response’ and ‘creativity.’” She loved Megaman 1, “for philosophical reasons that people do not understand.” For more standard reasons, she liked Little Samson and Adventures of Kirby.

By the time Empress was downloading Test Drive Unlimited 2, game cracking had coalesced into a “scene.” Warez groups (“warez” meaning software) were deep, deep underground, only communicating with the outside through text files, embellished with ASCII art, attached to games. And that was if the public even got their hands on those downloads. Most were uploaded to private servers. If they did get out, it was through repackers, or individuals who helped compress pirated game files for faster downloads. Groups targeted whichever games they pleased, insulating themselves from outside input, to say nothing of requests. And a lot of the time, they didn’t update their releases to account for bug fixes or software changes, fating their achievements to obsolescence. Empress doesn’t think they loved video games. They loved themselves, and winning.

“Everything they did was just a way to ‘prove’ themselves and boost their fake meaningless Egos,’” says Empress.

Then came Denuvo,which assigns a unique authentication “ticket” to each copy of a game, a sort of license shaped by all sorts of factors like hardware ID. Because Denuvo integrates with a game’s code, you can’t just crack it once and call it a day. Each title presents a unique challenge. For pirates, it was a bitch. Publishers loved it.

Denuvo parent company Irdeto compares its DRM to brick-and-mortar stores’ anti-theft technology. “The Denuvo anti-tamper technology is ultimately to protect the gaming industry and ensure game studios have an ability to continue to invest and build new games,” said a representative in a statement. “On PC, a large proportion of games (especially the AAA games) tend to be protected for a period of time to protect the monetization of the games being launched—say six months or 12 months for example.”

But for gamers, Denuvo and other DRM represent the renting culture that has come to define digital purchases. Increasingly, publishers ask you to stream media, access it on their platforms, defer to their guidelines for how to use it. “You forked over the 60 dollars for this game,” says Aaron Perzanowski, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University and author of The End of Ownership. “Why should you have to live with these interferences, with these impositions on your ability to play the game the way you want or on the device you want without being monitored?”

To Empress, crushing Denuvo is bigger than playing a video game for free. It’s bigger than “pirating.” She has no idea how gamers tolerate its existence at all. Publishers are telling them what they can and can’t do with it—namely, share it with friends or play offline. She thinks it’s straight-up evil.

“i always keep in the ZONE till i crush their pathetic puzzle prisons,” she says. Cracking DRM has taught her that the only real way to view the games industry right now is through the lens of philosophy. Philosophy helps people discern what is valuable, she says. And to discern what is valuable, you must look for higher truths. The higher truth in gaming, she says, is that “wanting to preserve something you ‘Buy’ should NEVER be a ‘Crime.’”

Recently, she cracked Anno 1800, which layered three types of protection, Denuvo on top. “No one else does this because it requires insane amount of focus, dedication and endless passion. I was able to achieve this only in several months of research. it was HELL to say the least.”

“There is little to no competition in the cracking scene when it comes to that particular DRM,” says OverkillLabs, who used to run the gaming-piracy-focused CrackWatch subreddit. OverkillLabs says they know of just three groups that have broken it, and none with the sense of mission Empress has.

Although OverkillLabs can’t quite pin down when her rise to fame began, as she keeps her history intentionally opaque, Empress first came on their radar when she shared her crack of SoulCalibur VI in March 2020. Unlike the insular Warez groups, Empress posted polls asking what gamers wanted next, shared her philosophy, delineated principles, named her enemies. The text files accompanying her games (long, white ASCII columns supporting her name) stuck with him: “The reason why Ubisoft, EA and such companies never remove denuvo from their games is only because they LOVE feeling *superior* and ENJOY seeing you the customer as PIG under their control or worse.” OverkillLabs also noticed that, unlike other groups, which were motivated by kudos and upvotes, Empress accepts donations. Cryptocurrency, specifically.

“People are used to scene groups that do it all for free and ask for nothing in return,” says OverkillLabs.

Empress has big “fuck you, pay me” energy. “I have an outside job, ofc,” she says. “How much time I spend in it depends on the amount of donations I receive.” She’ll skip work and take runs against a game for as long as she can afford it, but is steadfast in the idea that her work should be compensated. In a September 2020 post titled “I will need your help moving forward,” Empress bragged that she cracked Planet Zoo in one week. Total War Three Kingdoms in four days. It was time for her to tackle Denuvo version 9, integrated with Death Stranding and Resident Evil 3. She just needed some Bitcoin. “I'm just a little confused,” replied one commenter on Reddit. “People aren't willing to pay money for games but they're willing to pay money to get games illegally? :S.”

“the entire ‘Scene’ rules that accept ‘no money/donations’ is 1 of the biggest problems which always push the crackers back, instead of forward,” says Empress. “if you’re going to do such INSANE EFFORT, you wouldn't just do it for and from ‘nothing.’” A hobbyist couldn’t push through, she says, “to reach something with a bigger meaning than a quick boost of ego, which is very hollow and can be shattered very easily.”

On October 22, 2020, Empress released a liberated Red Dead Redemption 2 along with another cracker who goes by Mr_Goldberg, who wrote an emulator for the game’s launcher that allowed the DRM-free version to work. It landed on the front page of Reddit with over 23,000 upvotes.

“It took only 2 days for Empress to crack the RDR2 drm and denuvo is very difficult to crack,” says Mr_Goldberg. “never know when someone else might appear out of nowhere but right now empress is the number 1 in cracking ability.” Empress says she hates Red Dead Redemption 2. She just cracked it for “the people.”

On Sunday, Empress posted her crack of Immortals Fenyx Rising, protected by Denuvo and released December 3, 2020. Commenters on CrackWatch, a site that tracks game cracks, went wild, calling her a “goddess.” A cult of worship has attended her newfound fame. Gleeful cries of “fuck Denuvo!” flooded her uploads.

But slowly, over the last day, downloaders realized that Empress had capped the speed. She designed it so nobody could download the game in less than 24 hours. That would prevent repackers from repackaging her cracks for easier downloads—and potentially claiming the credit.

When fans in her community chat began questioning her motivation, Empress had an explanation ready. “If not for my plan here, everybody would already be shouting: ‘fitgirl you are AWESOME!,’” she said, singling out, a popular repacker. Empress maintains she doesn’t need attention. But at the same time, she says, “everyone just should know ‘Who’ is actually responsible of the cracks, and also to support and donate to the person who did the REAL work.”

Spotify to Launch HiFi High-Quality-Audio Subscription Later this Year

Spotify's high-quality-audio subscription will launch later this year in select markets, likely priced at about $20 a month.
Joan E. Solsman

Spotify said Monday that it will launch a new subscription offering called HiFi later this year in select markets, a new tier that will allow members to listen to music in higher-quality audio.

It is expected to be priced competitively with other high-quality-audio streaming tiers, which in the US can cost $20 a month. Spotify said HiFi would be considered an add-on to its regular Premium account, which is $10 a month in the US -- meaning Spotify HiFi is likely to cost about $10 in addition to the regular subscription price.

Rival Tidal's high-quality-audio membership is $20 a month and offers lossless high-fidelity sound quality at 1411 Kbps and immersive audio with 360 Reality Audio and Dolby Atmos Music.

The news came out of Spotify's Stream On event, intended to reveal how the streaming-music giant wants to improve both creator and fan experiences on its service. Monday's two-hour virtual event was expected to bring news both for listeners of Spotify and for audio creators using the service, likely including music artists and podcasters alike.

Spotify said its HiFi subscription will deliver music in CD-quality, lossless audio format to your devices and Spotify Connect-enabled speakers. It also said it is working with some of the world's biggest speaker makers so their products support Spotify HiFi through Spotify Connect, its system to let users listen on speakers, TVs and other devices using the Spotify app as a remote.

HiFi will begin rolling out in select markets later this year, Spotify said without specifying where.

Billie Eilish touted the feature during Spotify's event. "High-quality audio means more info," she said. "There are things you will not hear if you don't have a good sound system. It's really important just because we make music that [we] want to be heard in the way that it was made."

Spotify, the biggest streaming service by both listeners and subscribers, hasn't held one of these events since 2018 when it overhauled its free mobile tier. It amped up what you could hear with a free account, unlocking on-demand songs that previously were available only to paying customers. Changes like those, and Spotify's obession with expanding into podcasts of late, have vaulted the company to 345 million listeners and 155 million paying subscribers as of the end of last year.

Silicon Valley Runs on Saudi

What does it mean for American innovation to be backed by oil wealth?
Vicki Boykis

Vicki’s Note: I actually wrote this before I even went on maternity leave and originally had this scheduled to go out on Tuesday, but due to recent events in Saudi Arabia, it seems more relevant than ever.

Uber. WeWork. Flexport. Slack. MapBox. DoorDash. What do all of these hip American companies have in common, other than appearing regularly in tech headlines (and, now, being leading indicators of a tech bubble)?

They are - or were at one point - all backed by SoftBank’s Vision Fund, an enormous venture capital fund run by Softbank, a Japanese holding company.

In recent years, SoftBank has massively disrupted start-up investment in Silicon Valley and beyond with its $100 billion Vision Fund. Masa Son has become a key force behind all of the fund’s investments, meeting with every founder in person before a deal is signed. To put the fund’s magnitude in perspective, its size is almost double the investments made by U.S. venture firms last year. PitchBook data shows that VC fundraising in the U.S. totaled $53.9 billion last year across more than 200 funds, and that was the largest annual raise in at least a decade.

Of the 49 companies in which the Vision Fund has invested, "most are unicorns and are involved with artificial intelligence in some form," Son said, using a term for privately held startups valued at $1 billion or greater. "I believe AI will bring about the greatest revolution in human history," he continued, saying the technology would "redefine all kinds of industries, from automobiles to health and real estate."

What many articles don’t say about SoftBank is that a key contributing partner to the Vision Fund has been the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

But in the past few years, Son has increasingly focused on investments in technology companies through a $100 billion fund known as the Vision Fund. Saudi Arabia is the biggest investment partner in the fund. Its sovereign wealth fund -- the Public Investment Fund, or PIF -- has committed $45 billion and plans to put the same amount into a second fund. SoftBank has also said it will support PIF’s $200 billion solar power project in Saudi Arabia.

[Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] controls the PIF, which is at the center of the 33-year-old crown prince’s push to modernize the kingdom’s economy and diversify away from oil.

The American press has been breathlessly speculating on the Trump administration’s relationship with Russia for the past two years.

But only recently have they started to dig into what it means for America’s primo Silicon Valley startups to be tied indirectly to the Saudi government.

What does it mean for relentlessly forward-looking companies like Slack, who publish effusive blog posts about diversity and collaborative leadership, to be fueled in part by money from a government that only recently allowed women to drive, and has a record of flogging bloggers who disagree with the regime?

Even probably more importantly, what does it mean for members of the Saudi Public Wealth Fund to be on the boards of these companies and directly calling the shots?

As I’ve written about before, being on the board, particularly if you have money, has influence.

Jack owns quite a bit of Twitter, and he sits on the board. As of 2017, he owns 16.6 million shares, just a bit less than Evan Williams, formerly of Twitter, now of Medium fame. That’s about 2% of the company. Not insignificant. For all intents and purposes, Jack is the company, and he can do whatever he feels like doing - going on retreats, tweeting about Square, and RTing of articles about global warming and healthy food.

Here they are at Uber, and it’s already creating problems:

Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was one of the first to pull out of Saudi Arabia's Future Investment conference in October after the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, but the kingdom's now 10% stake in the ride-hailing company could cause problems as it races to go public.

The company's board held a "marathon meeting" last week, Bloomberg News reported, with all directors in attendance, including former CEO Travis Kalanick and Saudi official Othman Al-Rumayyan, who manages the kingdom's Public Investment Fund.

Because of the degree of separation between the fund, its backers, and constituent companies, this doesn’t seem to an issue that’s ever covered in the mainstream media, and, aside from the case of Uber,which is now squarely involved in geopolitics, it’s hard to parse out exactly what kind of pressure Saudi investors can apply.

But of course, it doesn’t hurt that Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the one who made the decision to pledge $45 of the initial $92 billion into fund, is making all the right noise in Silicon Valley.

MBS has been making a ton of noise lately about modernizing Saudi Arabia, including starting a long-term investment project out of oil, restricting the power of the religious police, and giving women the ability to drive.

On the surface, it all looks great, particularly when he engages with Silicon Valley. Here he is, meeting with the hottest guys in tech:
Saudi Embassy @SaudiEmbassyUSA

And here he is at Apple:

And, at Google, with Sergey

There’s seemingly no one he hasn’t met in Silicon Valley, and no company he hasn’t given money to, either through SoftBank, or on his own.

$45 billion is an awful lot of influence to have. To give some context, Venture capital investments in 2018 were $100 billion.

Fewer companies are raising money, but round sizes are swelling. Unicorns, for example, were responsible for about 25 percent of the capital dispersed in 2018. Those companies, which include Slack, Stripe and Lyft, have raised $19.2 billion so far this year — a record amount — up from $17.4 billion in 2017.

To give some further context, Google’s market cap is over $800 billion. So in theory, $45 billion is not that much.

But, if we do some major, major rounding, and assume that the tech industry is the sum of its top companies, at $1 trillion/year, $45 billion is about 5% of the industry.

So, what happens when 5% of any industry is controlled by parties that are not direct shareholders? And, what, in general, does it mean for high-profile American companies, particularly in an important area of important strategic growth like high tech, to be backed by foreign governments that potentially sanction the assassinations of journalist?

The real heart of the question: What kinds of decisions do they make that they otherwise would not have?

Hopefully we’ll find out more as Uber and friends come under the public spotlight for their poor financial performance.

And, also, part Two of the Vision Fund has recently been announced, valued at $108 billion. MBS has so far been a bit more reticent than the first time around (although a decrease from $45 to $39 billion is not chump change).

Whether this is related to the cooling of US/Saudi relations after Khashoggi’s murder, or whether this is related to the fact that We and Uber, flagship Vision Fund investees, are losing money hand over fist, is unclear.

But where he’s stepped down (even if only marginally), others are stepping in.

Some prominent corporations that are expected to participate in Vision Fund 2 include: Apple, Microsoft, iPhone assembler Foxconn, Standard Chartered Bank, Japanese financial giants Mizuho Bank, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation and MUFG Bank.

Others include the National Investment Corporation of National Bank of Kazakhstan and investors from Taiwan.

The sovereign wealth funds of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, which were major backers of the first Vision Fund, were notably absent from SoftBank’s list of expected investors on Friday.

The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday reported, citing unnamed sources, that Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi had indicated they were re likely to invest again, but Riyadh’s commitment will be less than the $45 billion it put into the first fund.

Some other interesting national parties are coming into play, namely Kazakhstan. Usually no more than a punchline thanks to the Borat movies, the country has been, for years, really thirsty to divest from heavy industry, and to be seen as a prominent, forward-thinking, totally non-Soviet country for years. It’s even gone so far as to move its capital. This is already backsliding as it changes Astana’s name in honor of its former, dictatorial president and muffles protesters during its elections.

So this doesn’t seem like good news for Silicon Valley, either, but again, it’s unclear what that amount of influence the new investors could have that goes beyond technology, to politics.

TL;DR: it’s very ironic that, for all of Silicon Valley’s noise about moving fast, breaking things, accessibility, equality, and good old-fashioned American innovation and Freedom, a not insignificant part of it continues funded by foreign governments whose values are fundamentally at odds with what Silicon Valley claims to promote.

Until next week,

- js.

Current Week In Review

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