The Download: Trolling Text Scammers and Chinese Social Media Censorship

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that gives a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

The people who use humor to troll their spam texts

Recently I received a mysterious WhatsApp message. “Dr. Kevin?” it started, the question mark suggested the sender felt bad for interrupting my evening. “My puppy is very sluggish and does not eat dog food. Can you make an appointment for me?”

I was stunned. My name is not Kevin, I am not a vet and I was not in a position to help this person and their puppy. I almost typed a reply saying “Sorry wrong number” when I realized this was probably a scam to get me to confirm my number.

I didn’t respond, but many others who have received similar texts have. Some even throw it back at their spammers by telling wild stories and sending hilarious messages to frustrate everyone on the other end. They fight back with snark and in some cases post screenshots of their conversations online.

Experts advise against reacting like this. But it’s cathartic and funny. Read the full story.

—Tania Basu

China wants all social media comments to be pre-reviewed before being published

The news: On June 17, the Chinese internet regulator Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) released a draft update on how platforms and creators should handle online responses. One rule stands out: all online responses should be pre-reviewed before being published.

How would it work? The provisions cover many types of comments, including everything from forum posts, replies, posts left on public bulletin boards, and “bullet chats” (an innovative way video platforms in China use to display real-time comments on top of a video). All formats, including texts, symbols, GIFs, images, audio and videos, are covered by this regulation.

What does it mean? Users and observers are concerned that the measure could be used to further tighten freedom of expression in China. As Beijing continually refines its control over social media, the vagueness of the latest revisions worries people that the government is ignoring practical challenges, forcing platforms to hire a massive army of censors. Read the full story.

—Zeyi Yang

The must reads

I’ve scoured the internet to find the funniest/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology today.

1 Crypto’s Value Still Falling
It’s down more than two-thirds since November, but purists are unfazed. (WSJ$)
Bitcoin dropped below $20,000 for the first time since last November last weekend. (FT$)
Investors are nervously watching stablecoin Tether to see what happens next. (NYT$)
+ Crypto insurance now sounds like a good idea. (Vox)

2 Juneteenth’s Timeless Virality
Because freedom from slavery is something we can all agree on, regardless of political and religious affiliations. (Wired $)
+ It’s been a terrible year for race politics in America. (NY Mag)

3 Ambushing a comet is a risky business
But it will be worth it if it gives us our first real glimpse of a primordial body. (Nature)
Astronomers mistakenly thought that Comet Borisov was pretty boring. (MIT Technology Review)
The Pentagon is investigating the use of SpaceX missiles to thwart future threats. (The Interception)
+ When is a black hole not a black hole? (other way around)

4 How thousands of sea-bound robots are fighting climate change
By spending 90% of their time 1000 meters below the ocean surface. (Spectrum IEEE)
+ Why heat pumps are emerging as an important decarbonisation tool. (Protocol)
+ UN Climate Report: Carbon Removal Is Now “Essential”. (MIT Technology Review)
+ A Peruvian fishing community is still suffering, five months after an oil spill. (Hakai magazine)

5 AI Can Do So Much More Than Convince Us It’s Conscious
And yet we continue to fall into the trap of missing the bigger picture. (The Atlantic $)
+ We also miss the point of the Turing test. (WP$)
+ What the history of AI tells us about its future. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Anti-vaxx Conspiracies Are A Global Problem
Much wider than their American roots. (slate $)

7 Can a steak made from recycled carbon dioxide ever taste good?
It only takes a few days to make an ‘air steak’, compared to the years it takes to raise and care for a cow. (Neo.Life)
Why oat milk companies may need to stop marketing their products as “milk.” (slate $)
+ Your first lab-grown burger will be “blended”. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Why Peter Thiel unfriended Facebook
And what’s next for the billionaire with a penchant for crypto. (WP$)
+ Facebook will also be a very different place without Sheryl Sandberg. (The Atlantic $)

9 How Drill’s Influence Spread Beyond Weird Twitter
The court jester of the platform has invaded the mainstream. (New York $)

10 What It’s Like To Be The Worst Person On The Internet
And another case of why posting images in the public domain can backfire. (the guard)

Quote of the day

“Are we going to bow our heads to Jeff Bezos just to give him his pleasure boat?”

— Paul van de Laar, professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, is furious about the Amazon founder’s request to dismantle part of the city bridge to enable his superyacht, he tells the Financial Times.

The big story

This company delivers packages faster than Amazon, but workers pay the price

June 2021

Early in the morning in October 2020, 27-year-old Jang Deok-joon came home from his night shift at South Korean e-commerce giant Coupang and jumped into a shower. He had worked in the company’s warehouse in the southern city of Daegu for a little over a year, transporting crates full of items ready to be shipped to the delivery centers. When he didn’t get out of the bathroom for over an hour and a half, his father opened the door to find him unconscious and curled up in a ball in the bathtub, his arms pressed tightly to his chest. He was rushed to hospital, but with no heartbeat and unable to breathe on his own, doctors pronounced him dead at 9:09 am. The coroner ruled that he had died of a heart attack.

Jang was the third Coupang worker to die that year, adding to growing concerns about the nature of the company’s success. And it has been astonishingly successful, growing into South Korea’s third largest employer in just a few years, leveraging an extensive network of warehouses, 37,000 employees, a fleet of drivers and a suite of AI-powered tools to to occupy a leading position in South Korea’s crowded e-commerce market.

Coupang’s proprietary AI algorithms calculate everything from the most efficient way to stack packages in vans to the precise route and sequence of deliveries for drivers. In warehouses, AI anticipates purchases and calculates shipping deadlines for outbound packages, enabling it to promise delivery in less than a day for millions of items. Such innovations are why Coupang confidently calls itself the “future of e-commerce” and was the driving force behind its recent launch on Nasdaq — the largest US IPO by an Asian company since Alibaba in 2014. But what does all this innovation mean? and efficiency? for the company’s employees? Read the full story.

—Max S. Kim

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these strange times. (Have any ideas? Message me or tweet them to me

+ Congratulations to the one and only Brian Wilson, who turns 80 today. Of all its incredible tunes, this may be the best.
+ A total mystery: How did a British garbage can travel more than 1,900 kilometers to Ukraine?
+ What a relief: Denmark and Canada’s polite ‘whiskey war’ has finally been resolved.
This Rage Against the Machine take on dog toys is a masterpiece.
+ Here’s a selection of dresses that we wouldn’t mind Kim Kardashian ruining next time.