UK AI watchdog reckons social media firms should be more transparent

The Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation says there is strong public support for greater regulation of online platforms, but then it would.

It knows this because it got IPSOS Mori to survey a couple of thousand Brits in the middle of last year and ask them how much they trust a bunch of digital organisations to personalise what they deliver and to target advertising in a responsible way. You can see the responses in the table below, which err towards distrust but not by a massive margin. The don’t know’s probably provide an indication of market penetration.

How much trust, if any, do you have in each of the following organisations to personalise the content users see and to target them with advertising in a responsible way?
Facebook YouTube Instagram TikTok Twitter Snapchat Amazon LinkedIn BBC iPlayer Google search or Maps
A great deal of trust 7% 10% 6% 4% 6% 5% 13% 7% 16% 13%
A fair amount of trust 24% 38% 22% 8% 22% 15% 43% 25% 45% 44%
Not very much trust 30% 26% 24% 15% 25% 22% 24% 18% 17% 23%
No trust at all 32% 16% 24% 28% 25% 26% 13% 20% 10% 13%
Don’t know 8% 10% 23% 45% 23% 32% 7% 30% 11% 7%

It seems that UK punters haven’t generally got a problem with online profiling and consequent ad targeting, but are concerned about the lack of accountability and consumer protection from the significant influence this power confers. 61% of people favoured greater regulatory oversight of online targeting, which again is hardly a landslide and not the most compelling datapoint on which to base public policy.

“Most people do not want targeting stopped, but they do want to know that it is being done safely and responsibly and they want more control.” said Roger Taylor, Chair of the CDEI. “Tech platforms’ ability to decide what information people see puts them in a position of real power. To build public trust over the long-term it is vital for the Government to ensure that the new online harms regulator looks at how platforms recommend content, establishing robust processes to protect vulnerable people.”

Ah, the rallying cry for authoritarians everywhere: ‘think of the vulnerable!’ Among those, it seems, are teenagers, who are notorious for their digital naivety. “We completely agree that there needs to be greater accountability, transparency and control in the online world,” said Dr Bernadka Dubicka, Chair of the Child and Adolescent Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. “It is fantastic to see the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation join our call for the regulator to be able to compel social media companies to give independent researchers secure access to their data.”

The CDEI was created last year to keep an eye on AI and technology in general, with a stated aim of investigating potential bias in algorithmic decision making. This is the first thing it has done in that intervening year and it amounts to a generic bureaucratic recommendation it could have made on day one. Still, Rome wasn’t built in a day and it did at least pad that out into a 120-page report.

Virgin and BT start b*tching in Bristol

BT is running ads in Bristol dissing Virgin Media’s fibre offerings and Virgin is having none of it.

The BT poster campaign says ‘Bristol. Don’t settle for Virgin’, inferring its own fibre broadband offerings are superior (or at least more reliable). Pretty tame stuff, we thought, but it seems to have seriously triggered Virgin, which immediately mobilized its west-country operation to plan a counterattack.

It took the form of a large van driving around Bristol, with the following slogan emblazoned on the side: ‘B******T Our fastest average speed in Bristol is 516Mbps. That’s loads faster than BT. Enough said.’ Pretty edgy stuff, we think you’ll agree. The smallprint says BT can only manage a pedestrian 300 Mbps in Bristol. The asterisked-out initial statement seems to be deliberately ambiguous, inferring ‘bullshit’ but also the hashtag #bornfast. See what they did there?

“BT’s broadband bunkum just couldn’t go unchecked,” said Cilesta Van Doorn, Brand and Marketing Director at Virgin Media. “Residents of Bristol won’t be fooled by BT’s babble and we look forward to welcoming anyone who wants to experience life in the fast lane with our superior ultrafast speeds. With a reliable future-proof network that is bringing gigabit speeds to Bristol and more of the UK, Virgin Media is, as always, leading the charge – catch us if you can.”

Fighting words from Van Doorn there, who followed through with a press release about the whole unpleasantness, but we would have been more impressed if VM had gone all-in and actually written ‘bullshit’ on the van. Alternatively, if asterisks are mandatory, how about writing something like ‘BT are a bunch of lying b*stards and we’re not standing for any of their f*cking b*llocks anymore.’ That would have been cool, as would any attempt to exploit the cockney rhyming slang potential of Bristol.

ASA bans ad claiming 5G causes infertility

Campaign group Electrosensitivity UK has been told its advert claiming 5G causes infertility and depression cannot be used in its current form as there is no evidence to support the statements.

In response to seven complaints made about the advert, which appeared during July and August, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has put an end to the group’s fearmongering campaign. The ASA simply stated the group lacks robust scientific evidence and is misleading the general public.

The advert featured a family of three holding hands as they walked their dog, along with four quotes from experts and their fears regarding the implementation of 5G. The advert also suggested 5G would cause male infertility, depression, disturbed sleep and headaches, as well as cancer.

In defence of its misleading claims, the organisation stated that no research had been done to prove 5G was safe, the radiation associated with the frequencies is unsafe, a World Health Organisation (WHO) factsheet on mobile connectivity was wrong and UK Government studies were inaccurate and dated.

The group also stated the question ‘How safe is 5G?’ was open-ended and unbiased, and allowed readers to accept, reject or ignore it.

In assessing the advert, the ASA has stated that due to the assertions of Electrosensitivity UK, the group would have to hold robust scientific evidence, including longitudinal studies with human participants. It does not have evidence of this nature.

On the claims the WHO factsheet, entitled ‘Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile phones’, is in accurate, the ASA has rubbished this as a validation to mislead the general public. Claims the UK Government is also misinformed have also been rubbished.

However, evidence was presented by Electrosensitivity UK to validate its propaganda campaign. This evidence was found to be flimsy, with the ASA noting many of the articles presented were studies on animals rather than humans, or commentary from scientists, as opposed to robust and validated experiments to prove the claim.

In short, Electrosensitivity UK has no scientific justification to make such statements.

While this is a bold statement to make in-light of the drive towards the digital economy, this is not the first time Electrosensitivity UK has found itself on the wrong side of the ASA. In April 2018, another advert from the group was banned which claimed mobile phones caused numerous different health detriments including headaches, heart palpitations, skin disorders and cancer.

Again, the ASA banned this advert on the grounds that Electrosensitivity UK did not have the scientific evidence to support the claims that mobile technology was the cause of such afflictions. And once again, the evidence provided by Electrosensitivity UK to defend the advert was found to be flimsy.

What is worth noting is while there is little science to support the paranoia of Electrosensitivity UK, this is not the only group which is objecting to the rollout of 5G connectivity.

In Brighton during October, councillors and members of parliament were presented with evidence in an attempt to prevent the deployment of 5G equipment by the ‘Brighton and Hove 5G Alliance’. The group made similar health claims to Electrosensitivity UK, and the issue has been kicked down the road for review in the future. For the moment, it does appear paranoia has won out in Brighton.

Although 5G progress has been halted in Brighton, at least Electrosensitivity UK is being held to the proper standards. Unfortunately, the group seems to be a serial offender when it comes to the dissemination of misinformation. Perhaps it won’t be too long before the next attempt to mislead the general public with unvalidated health claims and mis-contextualised science.

BT launches biggest TV campaign for two decades

BT has launched its biggest TV advertising campaign for 20 years’ in the hope it can link-up all the network and brand assets in pursuit of the convergence business.

The new campaign, running across all available channels, will hopefully build the foundations to reinvigorate an ageing BT brand and push towards creating a new business model, heavily relying on the new ‘Halo’ convergence product.

More than three and a half years after acquiring the EE business, BT is getting down to the difficult work of making sense of the business. The expensive and questionably beneficial venture into TV proved to be a useful distraction for the team, though now it seems it is making progress on validating the £12.5 billion deal which brought the mobile giant into the group.

“Today’s launch of the ‘Beyond Limits’ campaign represents a real shift for BT, inside and out,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer division.

“Our presence and scale across the UK means that we have an opportunity and responsibility to go further than ever to connect more people and businesses across the UK, help them make the most out of the technology they have, and equip them with the skills they need to shape the future. This campaign represents just that, a bold step into the future, helping people to break down barriers and realise their potential.”

The TV ad follows the story of a young girl as she travels through modern Britain to reach her classroom of the future. This aspect of the campaign draws attention to the innovations which are made capable as future-proofed networks, both 5G and full-fibre, are rolled out through the country.

While this aspect of the campaign does not pay too much homage to the wider scale of the BT business, it does draw attention to the digital skills and education campaign which the team has launched.

Alongside this TV campaign, BT will also brand all of its EE shops with the BT branding and will sponsor all four football unions representing the members of the UK. The BT business does need a brand refresh, it needs to be presented as a modern company in the same way Three and O2 has done in recent years, though we will be curious to see how these campaigns aim to marry the different assets in the mind of the consumer.

If you look at the assets which the UK telcos have at their disposal, BT should theoretically be untouchable. The largest mobile and fixed networks, a wifi footprints with five million access points and a new TV proposition, behind schedule currently but should be launched in the New Year.

The new BT brand is a good start, offering the company a fresh start, but soon enough someone will have to make the brave decision to retire the EE brand, as well as the expensive brand marketing campaign fronted by the likes of Kevin Bacon and Britney Spears. Not only is running two advertising campaigns very expensive, the perseverance of a multi-brand strategy does not help the push towards convergence.

Hopefully this is the first step in this journey forward. A significant brand marketing campaign will refresh the brand and drive towards repositioning the BT business. The TV ad does encourage the association with BT and future-tech and does provide the foundation to build bigger and better things. However, the team will still have to tackle the complicated job of marrying all the connectivity and entertainment assets into a single, bundled proposition.

Teen-focused social app TikTok bans political advertising

TikTok, a video selfie app popular with teenagers, has sensibly decided political advertising doesn’t fit in with its vibe.

For those unfamiliar with it, TikTok is the latest big thing in social media for kids, teens and, presumably, anyone reluctant to move on from that phase. It enables people to make and publish short video clips of themselves on their phones and even splice in other media. It comes over as the best app yet to facilitate the kind of narcissism enabled by the social media connected camera phone.

TikTok’s most popular users seem to be teens doing musical performances or just generally talking to the camera, so it seems to reside somewhere in between Instagram and YouTube. But just as importantly it’s relatively new and unsullied by grownups, so it could well be increasingly supplanting its competitors in the teen market.

Conscious of its user demographic, TikTok is sensibly careful about its commercial deals. The PR consequences of serving ‘inappropriate’ content to kids would be severe and not worth the revenue. The latest such decision has been made regarding political advertising, which everyone knows is often the most bad-faith, dishonest, unpleasant propaganda and totally incongruous in an environment fills with kids just trying to have a bit of attention-seeking fun.

“…our primary focus is on creating an entertaining, genuine experience for our community,” said Blake Chandlee, VP of Global Business Solutions at TikTok, in a recent blog post. “While we explore ways to provide value to brands, we’re intent on always staying true to why users uniquely love the TikTok platform itself: for the app’s light-hearted and irreverent feeling that makes it such a fun place to spend time.

“In that spirit, we have chosen not to allow political ads on TikTok. Any paid ads that come into the community need to fit the standards for our platform, and the nature of paid political ads is not something we believe fits the TikTok platform experience. To that end, we will not allow paid ads that promote or oppose a candidate, current leader, political party or group, or issue at the federal, state, or local level – including election-related ads, advocacy ads, or issue ads.

It’s hard to argue with TikTok’s rationale here and we wouldn’t be surprised if some of its competitors rue not making such a decision too. The likes of Facebook presumably make loads of money from political advertising, but it comes with all sorts of baggage and scandal. There’s presumably plenty of money to be made from the ten-specific ad industry and TikTok would be wise to stick to that.

Multiple US states open Facebook antitrust investigation

An investigation has commenced in the US into possible abuses of Facebook’s market dominance regarding data, advertising and consumer choice.

The leader of the investigation is New York Attorney General Letitia James, but she has got her contemporaries from Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and the District of Columbia to muck in too. They all, apparently, are uneasy about the effect Facebook’s dominant market position has on all kinds of competition.

“Even the largest social media platform in the world must follow the law and respect consumers,” said James. “I am proud to be leading a bipartisan coalition of attorneys general in investigating whether Facebook has stifled competition and put users at risk. We will use every investigative tool at our disposal to determine whether Facebook’s actions may have endangered consumer data, reduced the quality of consumers’ choices, or increased the price of advertising.”

Yet to be announced by James, but widely reported nonetheless, is a parallel and similar investigation by the same AGs into Google. Of particular interest in both cases seems to be the digital advertising market, which is dominated in the US by the companies in question, as you can see from the chart below from eMarketer.

emarketer us digital ad spend

Since digital now accounts for the majority of ad spending it’s legitimate to be concerned about such a large market being dominated by so few players. Having said that it’s also reasonable to note that Google and Facebook have reached this position by competing in the open market and to the victor go the spoils. But however you achieve a dominant market position, once you do different rules apply to you and there’s plenty of precedent for such companies facing significant sanctions.

Is $170 million a big enough fine to stop Google privacy violations?

Another week has passed, and we have another story focusing on privacy violations at Google. This time it has cost the search giant $170 million, but is that anywhere near enough?

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has announced yet another fine for Google, this time the YouTube video platform has been caught breaking privacy rules. An investigation found YouTube had been collecting and processing personal data of children, without seeking permission from the individuals or parents.

“YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients,” said FTC Chairman Joe Simons. “Yet when it came to complying with COPPA [the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act], the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids. There’s no excuse for YouTube’s violations of the law.”

Once again, a prominent member of the Silicon Valley society has been caught flaunting privacy laws. The ‘act now, seek permission later’ attitude of the internet giants is on show and there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of these incredibly powerful and monstrously influential companies respecting laws or the privacy rights of users.

At some point, authorities are going to have to ask whether these companies will ever respect these rules on their own, or whether they have to be forced. If there is a carrot and stick approach, the stick has to be sharp, and we wonder whether it is anywhere near sharp enough. The question which we would like to pose here is whether $170 million is a large enough deterrent to ensure Google does something to respect the rules.

Privacy violations are nothing new when it comes to the internet. This is partly down to the fragrant attitude of those left in positions of responsibility, but also the inability for rule makers to keep pace with the eye-watering fast progress Silicon Valley is making.

In this example, rules have been introduced to hold Google accountable, however we do not believe the fine is anywhere near large enough to ensure action.

Taking 2018 revenues at Google, the $170 million fine represents 0.124% of the total revenues made across the year. Google made on average, $370 million per day, roughly $15 million per hour. It would take Google just over 11 hours and 20 minutes to pay off this fine.

Of course, what is worth taking into account is that these numbers are 12 months old. Looking at the most recent financial results, revenues increased 19% year-on-year for Q2 2019. Over the 91-day period ending June 30, Google made $38.9 billion, or $427 million a day, $17.8 million an hour. It would now take less than 10 hours to pay off the fine.

Fines are supposed to act as a deterrent, a call to action to avoid receiving another one. We question whether these numbers are relevant to Google and if the US should consider its own version of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

This is a course which would strike fear into the hearts of Silicon Valley’s leadership, as well as pretty much every other company which has any form of digital presence. It was hard work to become GDPR compliant, though it was necessary. Those who break the rules are now potentially exposed to a fine of €20 million or 3% of annual revenue. British Airways was recently fined £183 million for GDPR violations, a figure which represented 1.5% of total revenues due to co-operation from BA during the investigation and the fact it owned-up.

More importantly, European companies are now taking privacy, security and data protection very seriously, though the persistent presence of privacy violations in the US suggests a severe overhaul of the rules and punishments are required.

Of course, Google and YouTube have reacted to the news in the way you would imagine. The team has come, cap in hand, to explain the situation.

“We will also stop serving personalized ads on this content entirely, and some features will no longer be available on this type of content, like comments and notifications,” YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki said in a statement following the fine.

“In order to identify content made for kids, creators will be required to tell us when their content falls in this category, and we’ll also use machine learning to find videos that clearly target young audiences, for example those that have an emphasis on kids characters, themes, toys, or games.”

The appropriate changes have been made to privacy policies and the way in which ads are served to children, though amazingly, the blog post does not feature the words ‘sorry’, ‘apology’, ‘wrong’ or ‘inappropriate’. There is no admission of fault, simply a statement that suggests they will be compliant with the rules.

We wonder how long it will be before Google will be caught breaking privacy rules again. Of course, Google is not alone here, if you cast the net wider to include everyone from Silicon Valley, we suspect there will be another incident, investigation or fine to report on next week.

Privacy rules are not acting as a deterrent nowadays. These companies have simply grown too large for the fines imposed by agencies to have a material impact. We suspect Google made much more than $170 million through the adverts served to children over this period. If the fine does not exceed the benefit, will the guilty party stop? Of course not, Google is designed to make money not serve the world.

Google prefers cookies to fingerprints

Internet giant Google has announced some measures designed to better protect the privacy of users of its Chrome browser.

Under the heading of ‘Privacy Sandbox’ Google wants to develop a set of open privacy standards. At the core of this initiative is the use of cookies, which are bits of software that track people’s online activity and, so the theory goes, serve them more relevant advertising. Google concedes that some use of cookies doesn’t meet acceptable data privacy standards, but that blocking them isn’t the answer.

A major reason for this is that it encourages the use of another tracking technique called fingerprinting. This aggregates a bunch of other user preferences and behaviours to generate a unique identifier that performs a similar function to cookies. The problem with fingerprints, however, is that there’s no user control over them and hence they’re bad for data privacy.

Since the digital ad market now expects a considerable degree of targeting, but fingerprinting is considered an unacceptable solution to the blocking of cookies, Google wants to come up with a better one that will be implemented across all browsers, hence this initiative. The Privacy Sandbox is a secure environment designed to enable safe experimentation with other personalization technologies.

“We are following the web standards process and seeking industry feedback on our initial ideas for the Privacy Sandbox,” blogged Justin Schuh Director of Chrome Engineering at Google. “While Chrome can take action quickly in some areas (for instance, restrictions on fingerprinting) developing web standards is a complex process, and we know from experience that ecosystem changes of this scope take time. They require significant thought, debate, and input from many stakeholders, and generally take multiple years.”

While this is all laudable it should be noted that Google has possibly the greatest vested interest in optimising targeted advertising online. While that makes it perfectly understandable that it would want to take the initiative in standardizing the way it’s done, other big advertisers and browser providers may have reservations about surrendering much control of the process to Google.

EE grasses on Three UK for its 5G advertising

Three UK has run an ad campaign claiming its 5G network is the only ‘real’ one. Unsurprisingly other 5G providers are unhappy about this and at least one had complained.

The UK Advertising Standards Authority has been forced to take precious resource away from enforcing gender politics dogma to look into Three’s 5G ad campaign. The ASA confirmed to Telecoms.com that it has received six complaints about an ad by Three claiming to provide the only ‘real’ 5G, with one of them coming from BT.

We contacted EE, which provided the following statement: “Three’s claim to be the only real 5G network is entirely false, and deliberately aimed at misleading consumers. Our customers have been using real 5G since we launched the UK’s first 5G network, back in May.”

And, of course, we also spoke to Three UK, which gave us this statement: “Our advert is to inform consumers that we will offer the fastest 5G network, based on Three having three times as much 5G spectrum as any other operator. We are also the only operator to have 100 MHz of contiguous spectrum. ITU considers this the gold standard for 5G, enabling consumers to take full advantage of what 5G has to offer.”

It all seems to come down this 100 MHz contiguous block of spectrum and the value the ITU places on it in the context of 5G. Here’s a slide from a Nokia presentation titled Minimum Technical Performance Requirements for IMT-2020 radio interface(s) [i.e. 5G] that clearly state “The requirement for bandwidth is at least 100 MHz.” However it also states “The bandwidth may be supported by single or multiple RF carriers.”

Nokia IMT 2020 requirements slide

That caveat would appear to undermine Three’s claim that only its contiguous 100 MHz chunk meets the ITU’s minimum requirements. But when we put that to Three their spokesperson countered that, since carrier aggregation isn’t currently supported by 5G chipsets, that stipulation is irrelevant.

Three reckons this complaint is evidence that its competitors are worried about Three’s strong position in 5G spectrum, which is wonderfully ironic when you consider Three has spent a decade moaning about the opposite imbalance in 4G spectrum. Three is presumably OK with the situation now that things have apparently swung in its favour, so much so it was happy to provide us with a few slides.

The first offers a look at the current UK 5G spectrum situation, following the 3.4 GHz spectrum auction last year. Most of Three’s 5G spectrum is in the 3.6-3.8 GHz band, however, and we’re not sure what the ‘future’ bar signifies, but Three does seem to be at a distinct advantage. So much so that its competitors have apparent been moaning to Ofcom too, as quoted in the second Three slide. The last one represents the results of some Three testing, which is designed to show the unique download speed benefits of having 100 MHz of contiguous 5G spectrum.

Thee 5G slide 1

Thee 5G slide 2

Thee 5G slide 3

To be honest we find it hard enough to keep track of who has what spectrum, and why we should care, so we’re certainly not in a position to critique Three’s claims on a technical level. However they do seem to serve as a plausible defense of any claim it might make to have at least the potential to provide greater 5G download speeds than its competitors.

Where we still have some sympathy with the ASA complaint, however, is with the use of the term ‘real’. If Three had simply gone with ‘fastest’, as it did in the above statement, then EE probably wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. But by instead using the term ‘real’ Three seems to inferring rival 5G services are somehow illegitimate.

It will be down to the ASA to sift through the 5G standard, including the above ITU parameters, to determine whether or not only a 5G service that is able to call upon at least 100 MHz of contiguous qualifies. Since the ASA seems more concerned with thought policing these days we have to question whether it has retained the expertise needed to perform its supposedly core function.

Google is a social media addict and it has fallen off the wagon again

Googlers just don’t know when to give up when it comes to social media as the internet giant attempts to crack the market once again with Shoelace.

It’s been almost six months since the team decided to shut-down Google+ but the search behemoth hasn’t given up just yet. We’ve lost track at how many times Google has attempted to crack this lucrative market, and the latest attempt will put much more of a hyper-local twist on the social networking euphoria.

“Shoelace is a mobile app that helps connect people with shared interests through in person activities,” the team has written in the new platforms FAQs. “It’s great for folks who have recently moved cities or who are looking to meet others who live nearby.”

Coming out of Google’s Area 120, an experimental group within the R&D business, the team will look to create a platform which will focus on uniting people in local communities and neighbourhoods depending on their interests and experiences. It is a slightly different twist to and the Google team will be hoping its fifth time lucky as it attempts to crack the code.

Starting in New York with an invite-only private test, the platform will hope to push events out to users and encourage them to create their own. This might be as simple as checking to see if anyone within a five-minute walk would want to join a kick-about in the park, or it could be to promote a comedy-night in the local pub.

On the commercial side, it makes sense. Should Google be able to scale adoption to a suitable level there will certainly be demand from advertisers, from small pubs hoping to promote bingo to larger music venues hoping to sell tickets. However, if Google can’t convince enough users to engage with the platform, what’s the point.

This is where Google has struggled before; user adoption. Google+, Google Buzz and Google Friend Connect are all examples of platforms which failed because no-one actually used them aside from Google employees. Shoelace is the latest act of defiance from a company which does not know when to quit, and it is presenting a niche idea.

Users will be able to make use of a mapping feature to browse the local area for events, yoga in the park for instance, irrelevant as to whether they are connected to an individual who is attending or not. This is where it is slightly different from other platforms, it is activity driven not connection driven. This might sound like a good USP, but it relies on the assumption users will be OK spending their time with strangers.

Each time Google has attempted to crack the social media world, there seems to be a groan from the cynics and unimaginative who have decided there are enough social media platforms already. Google does not want to give up the potential gold-mine which is social media and the fortunes of competitors demonstrate why.

Alongside Google, Facebook is recognised as a leader in the world of online advertising. The core platform, as well as Instagram and WhatsApp, are making billions for Zucks and his cronies, but they are not alone. Twitter is starting to hoover up profits while Snap is looking like a genuine business and over in China, WeChat is perhaps the most complete offering around, combining social, communication, payments and eCommerce all in one place. You can see why Google has such a fascination with social media.