Instagram’s garden is starting to blossom

Just as Facebook’s core platform is beginning to wilt, Instagram is launching an assault on the shopping market built on the walled garden business model which bloomed in by-gone years.

A few people might have scoffed at Facebook handing over $1 billion for Instagram in 2012, but this acquisition is looking to be a clever bit of business. Facebook’s core social media platform, and the business model which underpins it, might be looking a bit jaded after recent attacks, but Instagram is maturing into a very attractive proposition.

Launched today (March 19), users can now purchase products from certain brands in the Instagram app. The team has been working hard to create a marketplace in Instagram over the last 12-18 months, and while the digital advertising model has been paying off, you get the impression the narcissistic tendencies of the app lend itself well to the online shopping arena, especially when it comes to fashion.

“When you tap to view a product from a brand’s shopping post, you’ll see a ‘Checkout on Instagram’ button on the product page,” the team said in a blog post. “Tap it to select from various options such as size or color, then you’ll proceed to payment without leaving Instagram. You’ll only need to enter your name, email, billing information and shipping address the first time you check out.”

For retailers, this could be a very interesting route to potential customers, both old and new. Instagram has proven to be a very effective tool for brands to engage consumers from a brand marketing perspective, but in terms of direct sales, the risk of navigating to another website comes with shopping carts being abandoned. Through in-app purchases, one purchasing hurdle is removed, simplifying the buying process.

Customer information will be stored with Instagram, and while it has been reported the details will not be pre-populated in other Facebook platforms, it would not surprise us if this is in the pipeline. Instagram will receive payments as a percentage of the total spent in-app, though in Facebook’s typically transparent fashion, the waters have been muddied with the team not revealing how much this percentage is.

This is perhaps another perfect example of Facebook’s ability to create a walled garden and charge third-parties to access the cultivated digital customers.

For years, Instagram has been creating an incredibly user-orientated platform, which is simple but very usable and addictive. The only way for users to access these users, to try and pry open wallets, is to strike a deal with Facebook. Facebook is not monetizing its users directly but charging third-parties entry at the gate. This model worked incredibly well for years, putting Facebook is the dominant and influential position it is in today.

The beauty of this plan is that Facebook/Instagram seems to have struck at the right time. Users are becoming increasingly used to using the app as an online catalogue, geared around window shopping not purchases. Another update launched last year, allows users to click on products which might features in posts or stories to see more information. Taking it one step further is a logical step, as long as its not done too aggressively.

While the raw materials are certainly there, the challenge which Instagram will face is not to over commercialise the platform. This is what happened with Facebook’s core social media platform, the focus was less on engagement and more on advertising revenues, resulting in the new generation ignoring and traditional users spending less time on it. If Instagram has learned from prior mistakes, this could be a very interesting proposition, with plenty of room for growth.

That said, learning from mistakes is one thing but keeping under-pressure executives in-line is another. Slowing growth figures have put the Facebook management team under pressure from investors, while scrutiny placed on the traditional business model in ever-increasing. New regulations to remove some of the freedoms granted in the data-sharing economy put profits under threat, and as with any other publicly traded company, they will have to be replenished somehow.

Recent attempts to carve out new revenue streams, such as Watch or Today In, have seemingly not produced the hoped-for bonanzas. In the case of news app Today In, the team is ironically struggling because Facebook and Google effectively destroyed the commercial viability of so many regional news sources. The ‘locusts are complaining there is no more corn’ one Twitter user commented.

Another development which is worth keeping an eye on is the change in management. After 14 years working for Facebook and Instagram, Chief Product Officer Chris Cox announced he was leaving last week. A replacement has not been announced, but the experience of this individual might give some insight as to how aggressively commercial elements of Instagram will appear.

Despite criticisms which might be directed towards Facebook and Instagram, this looks to be an excellent strategy. The team have been cultivating this audience for some time and seem to have created the perfect conditions for growth… just as long as the team learn from previous mistakes.

Qottab, Quindim or Quesito? Google releases Android Q beta

Every year Google releases a new version of Android, and while it is marginally entertaining to guess what sweetie it will be named after, it also provides a very useful roadmap for the future of mobility.

In controlling roughly 74% of the global mobile Operating System (OS) market share, Android is in a unique position to dictate how the ecosystem develops over the short- and medium-term. This year’s update appears larger and more wide-ranging than previous iterations, perhaps representing the significant changes to the industry in recent months.

“In 2019, mobile innovation is stronger than ever, with new technologies from 5G to edge to edge displays and even foldable screens,” said Dave Burke, VP of Engineering for Android. “Android is right at the centre of this innovation cycle, and thanks to the broad ecosystem of partners across billions of devices, Android’s helping push the boundaries of hardware and software bringing new experiences and capabilities to users.”

Privacy updates, gaming enhancements, features to accommodate for new connectivity requirements and addressing the foldable phone phenomenon, there is plenty for developers to consider this year.

Privacy as a product

New demands are being placed on developers around the world when it comes to privacy, but in truth, they have no-one to blame for the extra work than themselves.

This is not to say all developers have abused the trust of the consumer, but numerous scandals over the last 18 months and the opaque manner in which society was educated on the data-sharing machine has created a backlash. Privacy demands have been heightened through regulation and consumer expectations, meaning these elements are slowly becoming a factor in the purchasing process.

There are numerous privacy and security updates here which suggests Google has appreciated the importance of privacy to the consumer. Privacy could soon become a selling point, and Google is on hand with many of the updates based on its Project Strobe initiative.

Perhaps one of the most important updates here is more granular control of the permissions for individual apps. Users will not only have more control on what data is shared with which apps, but developers can no-longer request for consent for a catch-all data hoovering plan, while Google is also cracking down on un-necessary permissions. The team is updating its User Data Policy for the consumer Gmail API to ensure only apps directly enhancing email functionality have authorisation, while the same is being done for call functionality, call logs and SMS.

Data Privacy Survey

Source: GDMA: Global data privacy: What the consumer really thinks

Aside from the permissions updates noted above, users will also have more control over when apps can get location data. While some developers have abused the trust of users by collecting this data when irrelevant as to whether the app is open or not, users will now have the power to give apps permission to see their location never, only when the app is in use (running), or all the time.

There are other updates to the permissions side including audio collections, access to cameras and other media files. All of these updates represent one thing; privacy is a real issue and (theoretically) the power is being handed back to the consumer.

That said, Ovum’s Chief Analyst Ed Barton notes the critical importance of privacy features today, however, as Google could be considered one of the main contributors to the root problem, you must question how much trust the consumer actually has.

“It is noteworthy that privacy is something one might reasonably assume to have in most situations in modern life except in one’s digital life where the default expectation is that a vast digital platform knows more about you than your life partner and immediate family,” said Barton. “It is these circumstances which enables the concepts of privacy, personal data control and trust to be highlighted and used as marketing bullets.

“Privacy in something like an OS is meaningless unless you can trust the entity which made it so with Android Q the question, as always, is ‘how much do you trust Google’?”

Gaming enters the mainstream

Another major update to Android Q looks to target the increasingly popular segment of mobile gaming.

“Gaming remains one of the most popular genres on the app stores, while smartphones have allowed the industry to connect with the masses,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight.

“This has led to emergence of new games providers and a surge in casual and social gamers, while the arrival of 5G will open further opportunities for cloud based multiplayer games due to faster and more reliable connections and low latency. Mobile devices will be key in this new wave that also promises to bring virtual and physical worlds closer together providing users with immersive experiences.”

Capture

Source: KPMG: The Changing Landscape of Disruptive Technologies report

Here, there are two main updates which we would like to focus on. Firstly, Vulkan and ANGLE (Almost Native Graphics Layer Engine) to improve more immersive experiences. And secondly, improved connectivity APIs.

Starting with the graphics side, Android Q will add experimental support for ANGLE on top of Vulkan on Android devices to allow for high-performance OpenGL compatibility across implementations. The team is also continuing to expand the impact of Vulkan on Android, with the aim to make Vulkan on Android a broadly supported and consistent developer API for graphics.

In short, this means more options and greater depth when it comes to creating immersive experiences.

On the connectivity front, not only has Google refactored the wifi stack to improve privacy and performance, developers can request adaptive wifi in Android Q by enabling high performance and low latency modes. There are of course numerous usecases for low latency throughout the connectivity ecosystem, but from a consumer perspective, real-time gaming and active voice calls are two of the most prominent.

Gaming has slowly been accumulating more support and penetrating the mass market, and some of the features for Android Q will certainly help this blossoming segment.

Foldable phones; fad or forever?

Considering the euphoria which was drummed up in Mobile World Congress this year, it should hardly come as a surprise the latest edition of Android addresses the new demands of the products.

“To help your apps to take advantage of these and other large-screen devices, we’ve made a number of improvements in Android Q, including changes to onResume and onPause to support multi-resume and notify your app when it has focus,” the team said in the blog announcement.

There are of course a number of useful features which come with the increased real-estate, one of which is being able to run more than one app simultaneously without having to flick back and forth, as you can see from the image below.

Google Update

There are of course advantages to the new innovation, but you have to question whether there are enough benefits to outweigh the incredible cost of the devices. The power of smartphone and the astonishing tsunami of cash in the digital economy is only because of scale. With Samsung’s foldable device coming in at $1,980, and Huawei’s at $2,600, these are not devices which are applicable for scale.

Google is preparing itself should the foldable revolution take hold, but mass adoption is needed more than anything else. The price of these devices will have to come down for there to be any chance of these devices cracking the mainstream market, and considering recent trends suggesting the consumer is becoming more cash conscious, they will have to come down a lot.

The price might also impact the development of the subsequent ecosystem. Developers are under time constraints already, and therefore have to prioritise tasks. Without the scale of mainstream adoption, few developers will focus on the new form factor when creating applications and content. With little reward, what’s the point? Price will need to come down to ensure there is appetite for the supporting ecosystem to make any use of this innovation.

We’ve been complaining about a lack of innovation in the devices market for years, so it is a bit cruel to complain when genuine innovation does emerge, but a lot of work needs to be done to give foldable screens as much opportunity for widespread consumer adoption.

Europe has not been great at net neutrality – report

Nearly three years after the EU net neutrality regulations came into effect, neither service providers nor national regulators have been role models in following the rules, a new report concluded.

The Vienna-based non-profit organisation Epicenter.works recently published a report to present its multi-year research into how the EU’s net neutrality regulation has been implemented. The report, titled “The Net Neutrality Situation in the EU: Evaluation of the First Two Years of Enforcement”, examined how the regulation was interpreted differently by the regulators and how the service providers have taken it into their own hands to decide what to implement, or not implement in the 28 EU member states as well as the three EEA nations ((Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein). The results were not the most encouraging reading.

The EU regulation on net neutrality came into effect on 30 April 2016. The Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communication (BEREC) was mandated to lay down guidelines on the implementation for the national regulators. However, unlike other laws like GDPR, the net neutrality rules give member states the authority to decide the level of penalties if the rules are broken.  “This has lead (sic.) to a situation where some member states have not laid down rules for violations of net neutrality protections two years after the regulation entered into force,” the report says.

More specifically, 17 out of the 31 countries examined have not defined “effective and dissuasive penalties”, while in those countries that have defined monetary penalties, the amounts varied from a symbolic €9,600 in Estonia, to up to 10% of relevant turnover in the Netherlands or the UK. The report finds that, as a result of the less than strict implementation, “the largest telecom companies in Europe can choose not to comply with the law because it is financially advantageous for them.”

The area that the most offences were committed was differential pricing practices, in particular zero-rating data for selected applications and services. Although only Bulgaria and Germany have excluded “illegal commercial practices” (price discrimination when providing access to specific applications and services, in this case, zero-rating certain apps or services) from their penalty provisions, a total of 186 differential pricing products are being offered in all but three member states (Finland, Slovenia, Bulgaria), the majority (144 offerings) of them zero-rating (the rest are application-specific data volume). 17 countries’ regulators have started formal assessment processes into the differential pricing products offered by the service providers in their countries since the regulation came into effect, while the other 14 have not.

The report went on to analyse the impact of zero-rating offers on the consumer data price, and discovered that over a two-year period, the average data price (€/Gb) in countries with zero-rating offers largely held or slightly rose while the comparable price in those countries without zero-rating products went down by about 10%.

net neutrality data price

The reason for the steady price can be attributed to competition dynamics created by zero-rating, according to the report. Since the large service providers (e.g. Deutcshe Telokom) often have the biggest sway in partnering with content and application providers, the authors reckon, they create a “unique selling proposition” to attract consumers and no longer need to compete on the data package size or prize, which MVNOs and smaller operators can match their offers. This in effect has led to a slow-down in the growth of data package sizes or drop in prices in these markets.

It is not only the consumers that have been denied benefits by zero-rating, the authors find, there is also cost on the content and apps providers. In most zero-rating deals, the content and app providers will pay the fee for the traffic to the service providers (according to a report published by the Polish regulator UKE), which will then offer it to consumers at zero-rating. In this case, zero-rated data is actually sponsored data.

On top of the fees, in order for the billing to be correctly done, operators would require the content and app providers to make special data transport setup for the partnerships, e.g. change CDN contracts. This will also add operational cost to the content providers. In a high-profile case, when Vimeo did not participate in Deutsche Telekom’s “StreamOn” programme, it stated in an open letter to the German regulator that, although they are a 200 employee strong company, they cannot sustain co-operations with all the service providers whose customers they want to reach with their service through special programmes like this.

Two knock-on effects also come out of such partnerships. Due to the demand on fees and increased operational cost, most app and content providers can only afford to enter into limited deals. By the authors’ count, the large majority of app and content providers entered no more than three pricing programmes.

net neutrality number of programs

On the other hand, more often it would only be the Silicon Valley heavyweights that could afford to tie multiple partnerships with different operators in different markets, they occupy most of the spots on the leader table of differentially priced services being offered. “Among the top 20 zero-rated applications only three are from the EEA,” the report calculated.

net neutrality Silicon Valley heavy

The findings by the organisation has caught some attention. The Austrian regulator RTR will conduct its own research into the impact of zero-rating on data prices into more recent years and on operator level. The European Commission will also provide an evaluation report of the net neutrality provisions of the regulation by 30 April 2019, three years after the regulation came into effect.

Apple slaps Google and Facebook on the wrist

One day after Facebook had its enterprise developer certificates revoked by Apple, Google ran into similar troubles with the iOS and App Store owner.

It turned out that Facebook was not the only naughty player attempting to circumvent Apple’s rules to forbid apps developed under enterprise certificates to be distributed outside of the company. Google was found to have distributed a data monitoring and survey app called Screenwise Meter. The app comes with Apple’s enterprise developer certificate granted to Google and has been distributed to a “panel” selected and maintained in partnership with the research firm GfK. The panel may include users as young as 13, or with the parents’ consent, those under 13 though the data monitoring method will be modified.

It is not clear if it was a reaction to the revocation of Facebook’s certificates, but Google stopped the distribution of Screenwise Meter before Apple acted. “The Screenwise Meter iOS app should not have operated under Apple’s developer enterprise program — this was a mistake, and we apologize,” Google said in a statement on Wednesday. “We have disabled this app on iOS devices. This app is completely voluntary and always has been. We’ve been upfront with users about the way we use their data in the app, we have no access to encrypted data in apps and on devices, and users can opt out of the program at any time.”

However, Google’s developer certificates were still made invalid by Apple on Thursday, reported first by The Verge. This resulted in Google’s pre-release beta apps as well as employee-only apps, for example those for using Google’s shuttle bus or coffee shops, stopping working. (One cannot help but wondering how many employees in Google, which controls Android and releases its own Pixel smartphones, are using iPhone as their primary devices.) The tone from Apple, however, was much reconciliatory. “We are working together with Google to help them reinstate their enterprise certificates very quickly,” said the statement from Apple to BuzzFeed.

In comparison, Apple was much sterner when pulling the plug on Facebook. “We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization. Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple.”

To look at the two cases together, there are two types of issues Apple needs to deal with. To borrow the economics jargons, one is normative, i.e. based on principles, another is positive, i.e. based on facts. On the normative side, Apple should clarify whether Facebook and Google were punished for launching apps gathering users’ private data or for distributing the apps under the wrong type of certificates and through unofficial channels, i.e. not using the App Store.

Although most media coverage was focused on the Facebook app gathering user data, it looks that Apple was more annoyed by the fact that Facebook (and Google) has abused its enterprise developer certificates. It said in the statement related to Facebook: “Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case (of Facebook) to protect our users and their data.”

However, what drove Facebook to distribute “Facebook Research”, the app in question through unorthodox channels, looks to be that Apple has banned apps to gather user data as detailed as app history, private messages, and location, from being listed in the App Store. In its “App Store Review Guidelines”, Apple stated “5.1.1 Data Collection and Storage: (iii) Data Minimization: Apps should only request access to data relevant to the core functionality of the app and should only collect and use data that is required to accomplish the relevant task. Where possible, use the out-of-process picker or a share sheet rather than requesting full access to protected resources like Photos or Contacts.”

The rule above would be caught in a paradox in cases where the “core functionality” of an app is to gather detailed user data and is explicit with it. That was the case with “Facebook Research”. Facebook said in its statement: “Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”

As an aside, despite the repeated furore towards Facebook recently, neither users nor advertisers seem to be deterred. The Q4 results recently published showed that in Europe, where GDPR went into effect mid-2018, Facebook’s monthly active users went up from 375 million in Q3 to 381 million, and the average revenue per user in Europe jumped from $8.82 in Q3 up to $10.98.

If Apple was unhappy with companies distributing apps developed under enterprise certificates to users outside of the enterprises, there would come the positive side of the issues, i.e. related how Apple implements the rule. Whether Apple was punishing Facebook and Google as a deterrent to other companies that have or might have distributed apps externally using enterprise certificates, or it will go after all offenders, remains to be seen.

If it was the former tactic, an old Chinese saying that goes “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey” would summarise it well, though the two chickens Apple has put the knife in are much fatter than most monkeys. On the other hand, if Apple were true to its word that it would act on “any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers”, it may find a long line of chickens (or monkeys) standing in the line. Alex Fajkowski, a Twitter user and iOS app developer, suggested that both Amazon and DoorDash were distributing apps to recruit temporary deliverers. Then a longer list of companies suspected of doing the same thing was drawn up, including companies like Square and Sonos (though Sonos looks to have removed the page recently).

Looking at it either way, it is clear that Apple is tightening the control over its already tightly controlled ecosystem. With Services becoming increasingly important, Apple would not want to see any loss of revenues from iOS apps distributed outside of App Store, nor would it want to be seen complacent or even complicit in any comprise of users’ privacy. Or, standing up to the internet giants which have been on the receiving end of much anger, could score a PR victory for Apple.

Both Facebook and Google had their enterprise certificates restored by Thursday evening.

Facebook can’t seem to keep itself out of trouble

Facebook has apparently been paying customers $20 each to trade away their privacy to install a VPN which analyses usage, sidestepping Apple’s App Store policies.

The research initiative is similar to Onavo Protect, which was effectively banned by Apple last year, rewarding teenagers and adults to download the app to give the social media giant root access to network traffic which most likely would have been decrypted otherwise. According to TechCrunch, this is a violation of the App Store policies.

While $20 per user might seem like a huge amount, the data which is collected is incredibly valuable. Not only will it be able to identify usage habits, it will also contribute to competitor research. In theory, Facebook would be able to build a much more detailed competitor landscape, identifying potential threats to its business. The UK government has already unveiled documents which confirm Facebook uses the platform to inhibit competitive threats, so this type of data collection simply adds another nefarious cog to the devious machine.

According to the TechCrunch investigation, if Facebook makes full use of the freedoms granted through this app it would be able to access private messages from social media and other messaging apps, photos and videos, emails, web browsing activity and location information. What is worth noting is that is has not been confirmed whether this is the case, though Facebook could be heading for another privacy debacle.

This is of course not the first time Facebook has ventured into the murky world of surveillance. Back in 2014, the increasingly suspect social media giant acquired Onavo for $120 million. This VPN allowed users to minimize data leakage and improve the effectiveness of tariffs, but it also allowed Facebook to access deep analytics about what other apps they were using. This insight reportedly gave Facebook the confidence to make such a significant bet on WhatsApp.

The app came under pressure when it was revealed Facebook was stepping across the line, collecting information when the screen was off for example. Apple changed the App Store policies to ensure apps could only collect information which was critical to functionality, though by this point Facebook had a huge amount of competitive intelligence, and seemingly lit the fires of ambition.

One question which you really have to ask is how many lives Facebook has left. The last 12 months have been a carousel of scandal, saga and suspicion. Whether it is Cambridge Analytica, Friendly Fraud, fake news, influencing elections, violating privacy or snooping on customers, Facebook has poked and prodded the confidence and trust of the digital society. How much longer can this go on for?

Every time a new headline emerges about some nefarious or suspect activity from Facebook, the world much be getting closer to taking disruptive action. More and more people distrust the brand, but due to its influence in and penetration through digital society, usage of its applications have not been damaged much. You have to wonder how many more of these headlines the business can take; maybe it won’t be long before the Facebook empire is broken up.

Facebook sails towards sh*t storm of child exploitation and ‘friendly fraud’

It hasn’t even finished dealing with the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but fresh documents unveiled by a US Judge suggest Facebook knowingly duped minors into spending hundreds of dollars.

After legal action from Reveal, District Judge for the Northern District of California Beth Freeman unsealed 135 pages of internal memos and conversations (dated between 2010 and 2014), detailing in-depth strategies to maximise revenues from what the firm describes as Friendly Fraud minors (FF minors). These individuals are those under the age of 18 but have access to their parent’s credit cards.

Before we delve too deeply into the criticism of Facebook, it should be noted there were objections raised internally. Tara Stewart, one of the social media firm’s software engineers, raised concerns on several occasions, even suggested ways in which the risk of securing revenues from FF-minors could be reduced. These ideas were kicked back, with other employees attempting to protect revenues.

An FF-minor is an individual who is under the age of 18 but has access to a parent’s credit card. While this might not be the most scandalous revelation, the documents suggest Facebook knowingly took advantage of this scenario, created transactions which did not suggest real money was being spent and even labelled some as ‘whales’, a term taken from casinos who target gamblers who are likely to lose the most cash. The suggestion here is Facebook identified minors who fit the bill and exploited the situation to maximise revenues.

At a time where the company’s culture and moral standing is being questioned, the documents paint an even more nefarious picture. Not only to you have a company which treats users as commodities and pays little attention to data privacy principles, this latest revelation suggests the company is actively trying to scam minors.

Summing up the issues is certainly a tricky one, but we will try our best.

  • The company realised there were minors with access to parent’s credit cards and exploited this scenario for greatest revenue gains
  • Users were not always notified when a purchase was made, or prompted prior to completing the purchase
  • Facebook stored credit card information, to link to for future payments, without appropriately informing the user
  • The reality of spending money was hidden from the minors, often employing strategies which do not link in-game upgrades to real payments
  • Strategies to reduce the number of payments were drawn up, but then ignored as it would have too much of a detrimental impact on the bottom line

One of the most damning documents which has been unveiled is an explanation on what Friendly Fraud actually is and why employees should not attempt to curb it.

Parents who discovered the payments, we suspect through eye-watering credit card bills, were not initially able to report the problem to Facebook as there was no relevant feedback form or procedure. In most cases, said parents had to turn to the Better Business Bureau, the last option before a full-blown lawsuit. However, internal memos also suggest Facebook did not even read the content of these complaints before processing. This was not deemed an ‘efficient’ use of analyst’s time.

For a full explanation of the unveiled documents, we have to credit Reveal for perseverance (see the full article here), though this could be another disaster for the social media site. Privacy issues are one thing to deal with, but tricking children into spending money, sometimes hundreds if not thousands of dollars, is likely to kick a tsunami of hate.

Zuckerberg and his cronies might not have to worry about fighting the Cambridge Analytica scandal anymore, as it is probably about to be replaced by a completely different beast.

Privacy International points GDPR finger at Facebook

An investigation from privacy advocacy group Privacy International on the flow of personal information has questioned whether Facebook and its advertisers are violating Europe’s GDPR.

To date there have not been any major challenges using the data privacy regulation. There have of course been numerous violations of user privacy, but as these incidents occurred prior to the implementation of GDPR, the old-version of the rules and punishments were used. This investigation from Privacy International could prove to be a landmark.

The investigation itself questions whether Facebook and the app-developers which use its platform for data collection and user identification is acting responsibly and legally. Using the Facebook Software Development Kit (SDK), data is automatically sent back to the social media giant, irrelevant as to whether consent has been collected, or even if the user has a Facebook book account.

“Facebook routinely tracks users, non-users and logged-out users outside its platform through Facebook Business Tools,” Privacy International states on its website.

“App developers share data with Facebook through the Facebook Software Development Kit (SDK), a set of software development tools that help developers build apps for a specific operating system. Using the free and open source software tool called ‘mitmproxy’, an interactive HTTPS proxy, Privacy International has analysed the data that a number of Android apps transmit to Facebook through the Facebook SDK.”

After testing dozens of different apps, Privacy International claims 61% automatically transfer data to Facebook the moment a user opens the app, while others routinely send Facebook data that is incredibly detailed. Some of these users may be logged out of the platform or might not even have a Facebook account in the first place. Developers tested include travel comparison app Kayak, job search company Indeed and crowd-sourced search service Yelp.

Looking at the Kayak example, not only was information transferred back to Facebook once the app was opened and closed, but also during each stage of the search process. In the example Privacy International gives, the user selected a flight from London Gatwick to Tokyo between December 2 and 5, Narita Airport was then selected, before another search was conducted searching for hotels for two adults in the city. All of this information was sent to Facebook without prompt, despite Kayak claiming, ‘don’t worry, we’ll never share anything without your permission’, when the user signs in.

Alone this information is useful, but not incredibly so. However, when you consider the huge number of apps which will be sending information back to Facebook, an incredibly detailed picture of the user can be built. Using the other apps tested in this investigation, Facebook could also learn or make assumptions about the user’s religion (Muslim Pro), music interests (Shazam), salary and disposable income (Indeed Job Search) and interest in physical activities (MyFitnessPal). All of this information could be used to feed incredibly personalised advertisements to the user.

The big question which remains is whether this could be perceived as a violation of GDPR. Facebook has stated it released an update to the SDK which allowed developers to suspend the automatic data transfers, though this was only for version 4.34 and later. With the Opt-out section (the Google advertising ID) automatically turned off, some might suggest the user is being led as opposed to asked.

Another factor which could work against Facebook is the collection of data on users who do not have Facebook accounts; this is much more suspect. As per GDPR, a company has to have a specific and justified reason to collect personal information. It does appear Facebook is collecting information on users despite having no purpose or valid reason to do so.

With fines for violating GDPR up to 3% of annual turnover, the stakes are very high. This could prove to be one of the first tests of the rules, designed to protect the privacy of the general public, and few will be surprised Facebook is a central character in the story. With the social media giant seemingly antagonising many governments around the world, we suspect there will be a queue forming to have a swing with the sharp GDPR stick.

Google bids adieu to Allo

Google has finally called it a day on Allo, its attempt to compete with WhatsApp, to focus on its Messages product.

The concept of Allo was an interesting one to say the least, but it never took off. Launched back in September 2016, Allo made use of the artificial intelligence capabilities in Google. The platform included a number of features geared around making the app smarter which, if used excessively enough, meant you wouldn’t even have to message someone yourself. The dream was to take the unnecessary you out of the conversation.

And it didn’t work out well for Google.

Investments in the platform were frozen earlier this year, with many of the features being migrated across to the Messages platform. This is a product area which will get more attention at the expense of Allo, Google’s version of 15 minutes of fame.

“Thanks to partnerships with over 40 carriers and device makers, over 175 million of you are now using Messages, our messaging app for Android phones, every month,” Google said on its blog. “In parallel, we built Google Allo, a smart messaging app, to help you get more done in your chats and express yourself more easily.

“Earlier this year we paused investment in Allo and brought some of its most-loved features – like Smart Reply, GIFs and desktop support – into Messages. Given Messages’ continued momentum, we’ve decided to stop supporting Allo to focus on Messages.”

Users can export any contacts and conversations to the Messages platform, but in March 2019, Allo will say goodbye.

As far as we can see Allo failed for one reason. Google tried to steal market share in the messaging space by over-engineering the idea. For a messaging platform to be successful, it doesn’t have to be overly complicated, it just has to work. WhatsApp is not complicated, but it works and has scale. Google tried to be Google, and it didn’t work.

The concept of simplicity winning over an industry should be a very familiar one for Google, as it is what the entire enterprise is built on. The Google search engine might be an impressive feat of engineering behind the scenes, but presented to the user it is a simple, functional and accurate search engine. Google has set its place in the search world with a simple product and no-one else can compete.

We wouldn’t want Google to stop experimenting with weird and wonderful ideas, some great products have emerged while the ludicrous Loon is starting to gather pace, but you have to take the rough with the smooth when you let your imagination run wild. This is one example of Google having better ideas.

UK Gov pulls back the curtain on Facebook data policies

With pressure mounting against Facebook over the last few months it was only a matter of time before a treasure trove of treachery was unveiled; the UK government has done just that.

Considering the breadth and depth of the information revealed by Damian Collins, a MP and Chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, and the likelihood this is only scratching the surface, it’ll be some time before we discover the full impact. But, the door has been opened. For Facebook, the PR machine will have to find another gear as this will take some battling.

“As we’ve said many times, Six4Three – creators of the Pikinis app – cherrypicked these documents from years ago as part of a lawsuit to force Facebook to share information on friends of the app’s users,” Facebook said in a statement. “The set of documents, by design, tells only one side of the story and omits important context.”

Facebook is standing by changes made in 2014 which prevented developers seizing personal information of user’s friends, those who had not opted in. This is effectively the saga which kicked off the entire Cambridge Analytica scandal. Facebook argues Six4Three didn’t receive a temporary extension, allowing the app to continue operating while the changes were implemented, and the court case is manufactured revenge.

The Six4Three lawsuit is where Collins and his Committee managed to get their hands on the documents which have been unveiled here. Officials compelled Six4Three CEO Ted Kramer to hand over the documents while on a business trip to London. The documents were obtained as part of a legal discovery process brought about through Six4Three’s lawsuit against Facebook.

The documents are quite damning, suggesting Facebook used user personal information as a commodity, offering the team a useful bargaining chip to secure more attractive contracts, while also nipping any competitive threats before momentum was gathered. For Facebook, this should be considered a nightmare, and it seems investors agree. At the time of writing share price had dropped by 2.7% in overnight trading.

While these reports might not come as a surprise to those who work in the technology space, the general public are unlikely to find these reports very appealing. Facebook crafts an image of itself as a business which wants to help society, though these documents creates a perception of millionaires viewing the user as nothing more than a number, trading away information which doesn’t really belong to them. This idea will not be well-received by the general public.

Looking at the specifics of the documents, apps were invited to use Facebook just as long as it improved the Facebook brand, while some competitors were not allowed to use Facebook tools without the specific sign-off of CEO Mark Zuckerberg himself. One of these examples is Vine, which could be viewed as a means to obstruct rivals. Those who are legally-minded will know this could cause all sorts of problems for the social media giant.

Facebook has clearly recognised this is an issue as well. As part of its statement, Facebook has said it prevented apps which replicate the core functionality of its platform from reaping the full benefits, though it plans to remove this ‘out of date’ policy as soon as possible.

This is of course on concession Facebook is making, though there will have to be a hell of a lot more over the coming months. These documents are damning of the attitudes towards data privacy and also Facebook’s own policies. The lawmakers are sharpening their sticks and it won’t be long before they start taking more accurate aims at a firm which has done little to aid investigations, dodging meaningful questions like perfectly crafted PR ninjas.

One of the biggest recurring themes of the documents is the value which has been placed on data obtained through user’s friends. The idea of linking financial value to the developer’s ability to gain access to friend’s data is one of the key issues being raised by Collins. Some might suggest this goes against repeated statements from Facebook that it was unaware its platform was being abused.

This is the issue. Facebook has continually proclaimed its innocence, accepting criticisms that it should have done more, but ultimately the blame for abuse should be directed elsewhere. These documents suggest the social media giant was not only aware of the abuses but debated and understood the controversial nature. This does appear to be a complete contradiction of the firm’s previous stance.

Another example of this is an update made to changes to its policies on the Android mobile phone system, which enabled the Facebook app to collect a record of calls and texts sent by the user.

Perhaps this suggests a breach of trust during internal meetings and email exchanges, but it also damages the brand credibility of Facebook moving forwards. Facebook is in a hole right now, there’s no doubt about that.

Zuckerberg absent again; Facebook doesn’t seem to want to help itself

Facebook is a company which is consistently under fire for a rap sheet which seems to longer with each passing day, but you have to wonder why it seems to be constantly compounding the problem by irritating lawmakers.

A picture speaks a thousand words, and the tweet below is giving a very simple message to the world; Facebook is bigger and more important than your feeble politicians.

Of course, the company will contest this interpretation, insisting it is doing everything possible to help politicians understand how they can build a bigger and brighter digital world, but with CEO Mark Zuckerberg continuing to ignore calls to attend examinations, there is a bit of a contradiction appearing. All he is doing is agitating politicians and offering up ammunition for haters to attack the platform and its executives.

Some might suggest, as Lord Richard Allan, Facebook’s Director for Policy in Europe, has done that Zucks cannot commit to every request. He has attended a couple, though the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has played a blinder here. They have ensured the representatives of nine nations, representing almost 500 million people, are all in the same place at the same time. Surely Zucks could squeeze this one into his schedule as it is much more efficient? No, apparently not.

What we are seeing at the moment is a game of chess, and Facebook is losing. The rules are going to change in the future, governing how companies like Facebook can make money, and the longer Zuckerberg continues to irritate legislators and regulators with his absence, the less influence Facebook will have in crafting these rules. This short exchange between Lord Allan and Chairman of the DCMS Committee Damian Collins demonstrates this point very well:

Collins: I put it to you that you have lost the trust of the international community to self-police and that we have to start looking at a method of holding you and your company to account, because Mr Zuckerberg, who is not here, does not appear willing to do the job himself.

Lord Allan: Again, I am going to agree with you. One of the areas that I am working on right now is precisely to understand the kind of regulatory framework that is in everyone’s interest. We have accepted, and Mr Zuckerberg has said himself that we accept, that this requires a regulatory framework and action by responsible companies like ours. It is the two in tandem, and as we go on to discuss false news and elections, I think the regulatory piece is going to be a really important part of that.

Collins: I don’t think it is up to Facebook to determine what regulatory structure it should be under. It should be up to Parliaments to determine that and that is why we here.

This short exchange demonstrates the position Facebook is walking itself into. In years gone, when people liked and trusted Facebook, the team might have been able to influence regulation which dictated how the business could be run. But scandals and a persistent insistence to irritate politicians has changed this. Facebook is being pushed outside the tent, the politicians are building the case against the company and it doesn’t seem to want to repair the broken bonds.

Every single time Zuckerberg refuses to attend one of these sessions he is giving the impression that such tasks are below him. Send one of the minions instead with prompt cards emblazoned with “I’ll get back to you on that one”. That is a phrase which has been consistently repeated, though as several of the politicians in this affair pointed out, Facebook is going to have to get back to them eventually. They won’t simple forget and move onto the next scandal.

Ian Lucas, another MP on the committee, pointed out Zuckerberg had promised the US Senate Committee a list of companies Facebook had banned due to violations of the platforms rules. This promise was made months ago and the list is yet to emerge. The “I’ll get back to you on that one” answer has run its course, and will just become another irritation to the politicians. Soon enough Facebook will have to deliver on the promises.

This scandal is growing day-by-day and the Facebook public relations team is looking woefully underqualified. The absence of Mark Zuckerberg has been well documented here, but all it is doing is compounding the political and PR sh*t-storm which is swirling around the company. Politicians are building the public hatred and mistrust towards the brand, and Zuckerberg is burying his head in the sand.