Facebook buys into the cryptocurrency buzz – report

Reports suggest Facebook is in the process of developing its own cryptocurrency, with plans to launch in as many as a dozen countries as early as Q1 2020.

According to the BBC, not only has the product been given a name, GlobalCoin, but CEO Mark Zuckerberg has met with Bank of England Governor Mark Carney. The cryptocurrency could be unveiled to the world by the end of the year, with plans to kick off operations during the first quarter of 2020.

It would appear this is one of the more radical ideas from Facebook to differentiate its business, removing the dependency on the increasingly under-fire data sharing economy. With the general public, regulators and governments all taking more pro-privacy stances, the fundamentals of the data-sharing economy are coming under-threat. Numerous companies will face significant disruptions with the introduction of stricter regulations, though Facebook is one of the most exposed to the threat.

While the idea of virtual currencies is not particularly new, real-world applications will escape the imaginations of most. In this example, Facebook may want to move towards a more dominant position in the digital economy, enabling purchases through its various different products. Cryptocurrency will become an important facet of this process, firstly to encourage people to purchase through the products instead of going directly to the advertiser, and secondly, allowing people without bank accounts to engage in eCommerce. There is the potential to inspire confidence in purchases from previously unknown websites and vendors.

Although it is a perfectly reasonable ambition for Facebook executives to hold, there will be numerous sceptics around the world. Facebook has not necessarily shown itself as a particularly resourceful custodian of personal information; asking people to trust them from a financial perspective would require a huge amount of credibility in the brand. This might prove to be a stumbling block for the social media giant.

Another factor to consider is how unregulated the cryptocurrency market currently is. In the UK, cryptocurrency is not recognised as legal tender, while many in the general public have little understanding of the concept. Both of these factors might undermine confidence in any virtual payments system, at least in the immediate future.

This is not the first time Facebook has ventured towards the world of virtual currency however. In 2011, Facebook introduced Facebook Credits, which it hoped would replace traditional means of paying for in-app products on the platform. In 2012, Facebook announced it would no-longer use its own money system and officially canned the project in September 2013. A lack of traction with the general public undermined the idea.

Hints were also dropped of Facebook’s ambitions in May 2018, when the firm announced it had hired David Marcus. Marcus, who previously was a member on the board of directors of Coinbase and President of PayPal, has been leading blockchain projects in the business.

Zuckerberg has not been shy about his ambitions to enter the financial fray, telling the audience at a developer conference last month the payments world was an attractive one. For Facebook, this is a logical move. Considering the widespread adoption of its platforms (Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram) and consumer trends to favour digital purchasing over real-world transactions, it is in a good position.

The platform also needs to become more attractive to consumers. Trends over the last few years suggest people are spending less time on the core platform. The introduction of more functional features, such as eCommerce, could be a way to diversify the business. However, the focal point of the argument moving forward will be around security.

Facebook will need to prove that the cryptocurrency is firstly secure, but also that its own data storage and processing capabilities meet the privacy and data protection demands of today’s digital society. This is where it might fall short of expectations.

Amazon wants to be more in-tune with your emotions

Amazon is reportedly working on new technology which will be able to detect users’ emotional state by analysing their vocal patterns.

According to Bloomberg, the tech giant is working in collaboration with Lab126 to create a wearable device, which would be paired with a smartphone, to perceive emotions of the user. With eyes on 2017 patent that uses vocal pattern analysis to determine someone’s emotional state, the insight could be used through various health and wellbeing products, or even in the online advertising world.

This is perhaps one of the trickiest aspects of hyper-targeted advertising or personalisation. Context is king when it comes to serving people relevant adverts or products, though this not only depends on browsing history or financial circumstance, but also the emotional state of that individual at that time.

For example, an individual might have searching for new trainers or workout gear over the last few weeks, but if they are feeling frustrated, presenting an expensive gym membership at that point is unlikely to be the most profitable exercise.

Right now, this technology is nothing more than an idea, while the reports have not been confirmed by Amazon. It might prove to be too much of a complex equation to solve, but it will certainly be of interest to the thousands of brands around the world who are constantly searching for new ways to engage consumers, forcing an extra couple of quid out of the constrained wallets.

This also might prove to be one step too far for the consumer. To get this concept off the ground, buy-in would have to gained from the mass market. Consumers are already being asked to reveal a lot of data in exchange for ‘free’ services, but emotional wellbeing might be the breaking point. This is incredibly personal information therefore the value exchange would have to be very tempting.

The concept itself sounds very futuristic, which to some is daunting. The pace which the technology world is moving forward is staggering at times, though we are not entirely convinced there would be buy-in from consumers. It sounds like an interesting idea, but it might be too much too soon.

Microsoft starts ruffling privacy feathers in the US

This weekend will mark the one-year anniversary of Europe’s GDPR and Microsoft has made the bold suggestion of bringing the rules over the pond to the US.

Many US businesses would have been protected from the chaos that was the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), with the rules only impacting those which operated in Europe. And while there are benefits to privacy and data protection rights for consumers, that will come as little compensation for those who had to protect themselves from the weighty fines attached to non-compliance.

Voicing what could turn out to be a very unpopular opinion, Microsoft has suggested the US should introduce its own version.

“A lot has happened on the global privacy front since GDPR went into force,” said Julie Brill, Deputy General Counsel at Microsoft. “Overall, companies that collect and process personal information for people living in the EU have adapted, putting new systems and processes in place to ensure that individuals understand what data is collected about them and can correct it if it is inaccurate and delete it or move it somewhere else if they choose.

“This has improved how companies handle their customers’ personal data. And it has inspired a global movement that has seen countries around the world adopt new privacy laws that are modelled on GDPR.

“Now it is time for Congress to take inspiration from the rest of the world and enact federal legislation that extends the privacy protections in GDPR to citizens in the United States.”

The rules themselves were first introduced in an attempt to force companies to be more responsible and transparent in how customer data is handled. The update reflected the new sharing economies the world had sleepwalked into; the new status quo had come under criticism and new protections had to be put in place while also offering more control to the consumer of their personal data.

GDPR arrived with little fanfare after many businesses scurried around for the weeks prior despite having almost 18 months’ notice. And while these regulations were designed for the European market, such is the open nature of the internet, the impact was felt worldwide.

While this might sound negative, GDPR has proved to be an inspiration for numerous other countries and regions. Brazil, Japan, South Korea and India were just a few of the nations which saw the benefit of the rules, and now it appears there are calls for the same position to be adopted in the US.

As Brill points out in the blog post stating the Microsoft position, California has already made steps forward to create a more privacy-focused society. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) will go into effect on January 1 2020. Inspired by GDPR, the new law will provide California residents with the right to know what personal information is being collected on them, know whether it is being sold or monetized, say no to monetization and access all the data.

This is only one example, though there are numerous states around the US, primarily Democrat, which have similar pro-privacy attitudes to California. However, this is a law which stops short of the strictness of GDPR. Companies are not on the stopwatch to notify customers of a breach, as they are under GDPR, while the language around punishment for non-compliance is very vague.

This is perhaps the issue Microsoft will face in attempting to escalate such rules up to federal law; the only attempt which we have seen so far in the US is a diluted version of GDPR. Whereas GDPR is a sharp stick for the regulators to swing, a fine of 3% of annual turnover certainly encourages compliance, the Californian approach is more like a tickling feather; it might irritate a little bit.

At the moment, US privacy laws are nothing more than ripples in the technology pond. If GDPR-style rules were to be introduced in the US, the impact would be significant. GDPR has already shifting the privacy conversation and had notable impacts on the way businesses operate. Google, for example, has introduced an auto-delete function for users while Facebook’s entire business rhetoric has become much more privacy focused. It is having a fundamental impact on the business.

We are not too sure whether Microsoft’s call is going to have any material impact on government thinking right now, but privacy laws in the US (and everywhere for that matter) are going to need to be brought up-to-date. With artificial intelligence, personalisation, big data, facial recognition and predictive analytics technologies all gaining traction, the role of personal data and privacy is going to become much more significant.

Supreme Court opens the legal floodgates on Apple

Apple is potentially on the verge of facing a tidal wave of lawsuits as the Supreme Court agrees the iLeader is allowed to be challenged on a potential abuse of power in the app economy.

The pivotal case the Supreme Court has been ruling on is Apple vs. Pepper. Robert Pepper and other plaintiffs, various iPhone owners, filed an antitrust lawsuit against Apple claiming the firm monopolised the app market through the App Store, with developer licence fees and the 30% commission ultimately driving the price up for consumers.

One the other side of the argument, Apple suggested iPhone owners were actually customers of the developers, while the developers were customers of Apple. This nuanced argument leans on legal precedent set in doctrine known as Illinois Brick where ‘indirect purchasers’ of a product don’t have the power to file antitrust cases. In distancing itself from the end-user in the app economy, Apple was hoping to protect itself.

In the first instance, the district court ruled in favour of Apple, dismissing the case, while the Ninth Circuit Court reversed the decision, ruling that consumers are purchasing from Apple not the developers. The fight was then escalated up to the Supreme Court, with the highest legal battleground in the US ruling 5-4 in favour of the iPhone owners.

What is worth noting is this is not a ruling which states Apple’s App Store is a monopoly, but a decision which allows users to file antitrust lawsuits against the iLeader. It’s a step towards another legal headache but is by no means a sign of guilt.

For Apple, this will come as an unwanted distraction as it attempts to scale it software and services business, in which the App Store is a key cog. The last few years have seen the Apple team attempt to create a more balanced business, with less of a reliance on the staggering hardware segment and reaping the rewards of the blossoming software world.

This decision from the Supreme Court might not assign guilt to Apple, but it certainly creates a monumental migraine. Such is the lawsuit culture in the US it won’t be long before miffed customers just on the bandwagon in pursuit of compensation.

Apple recognised as ‘Privacy Champion’ by techies

An anonymous survey of people working in the technology industry has crowned Apple as the privacy champion of FANG, while 78% believe it is a top priority at their own organization.

The survey was run by Blind, an anonymous social network for the workplace​, which has a userbase in the hundreds of thousands, many of whom work at the world’s largest technology companies. Asking whether they believed their own organization prioritised user privacy, the results might shock a few.

Employees of technology companies were given a simple statement and offered the opportunity to add an explanation. The statement was “My company believes customer data protection is a top priority”.

Sitting at the top of the table was Apple with 73.6% and 19.8% answering the statement they strongly agreed or agreed respectively. LinkedIn and Salesforce also featured highly on the list, while Google and Amazon were also above the industry average. Facebook was below the industry average while Adobe, Intuit and SAP fell way below the average with only 44.6%, 40% and 39% respectively stating they strongly agree with the statement.

Such low numbers should be a major concern, especially with lawmakers and regulators attempting to reconfigure rules to take a stronger tone with data privacy. Irrelevant whether the likes of Apple is taking privacy seriously, rules will be written for the industry as a whole; the laggards will ensure everyone has to face the sharp stick of the law.

On the FANG front, Blind users were asked whether Apple should be considered the privacy champion. 67.9% agreed with the statement, with some suggesting the business model is not based on the transfer of personal information therefore it is more secure or less of a threat. That said, Apple is fast evolving with the software and services business becoming more of a focus. It might well evolve to include some of these practises in the future.

That said, while Apple is seemingly keeping its hands clean, one person feels the company is nothing more than an enabler for the more nefarious.

“I feel Apple is no better for creating the technology that enables companies like Facebook to become no more than spying tools,” said one Intuit employee.

Although scores in the 70s could be viewed as positive, this means 20-30% of an organization’s own employees do not believe the privacy rhetoric which is being reeled off in the press by executives of the tech giants. If a company is unable to create an internal belief in privacy, it might be viewed as a worrying sign.

Facebook financial foray flops face first

Facebook has killed a feature which allowed users to pay connections through its Messenger app due to a lack of uptake.

The idea was a relatively simple one; Facebook’s Messenger app could be used to transfer funds between connections. The banks clearly thought it might be a goer, all the major institutions in the UK signed up, though a lack of consumer interest led the social media giant to pull the plug.

“The Facebook messenger functionality got all of the major UK banks on board when it was launched in 2017, but consumer uptake never took off,” said Oliver Wintle, Banking Analyst at GlobalData. “GlobalData’s 2018 Retail Banking Insight Survey found that 55% of users in France and 71% of users in the UK have never used Instant messaging to complete banking tasks.”

Why this feature failed to capture the attention of consumers is down to interpretation, GlobalData is suggesting it is simply down to breadth and depth. Considering how accessibly banking apps are nowadays, and the additional features which are available in the banking apps themselves, Facebook seemed to be addressing a problem which didn’t exist in the eyes of the consumer.

Another factor which you have to consider is the credibility of Facebook. Over the last 18 months, the social media firm has been central to a number of scandals, all of which has damaged the reputation of the brand. Asking consumers to trust Facebook in handling financial transactions, dealing with real money, might have been a step too far.

Facebook might be able to ask for user’s birthday or for data on their interests, but this is different to asking for financial information. In facilitating payments, Facebook is asking users to trust it with their hard-earned cash. To do this you have to have a lot of credibility in the bank.

While Facebook has certainly tarnished its reputation, it might also be the case no social media brand has the repute to introduce such an initiative yet. 55% of users in France and 71% of users in the UK have never used instant messaging to complete banking tasks, suggesting users do not view these platforms in this way.

Alongside the credibility issue, numerous telcos have launched features which allow customers to pay their contacts through text. Although this has the potential to fail in the same way Facebook has done, a lack of functionality compared to banking apps, customers trust telcos with their credit card details.

The private power of the edge

One of conundrums which has been quietly emerging over the last couple of months concerns how to maintain privacy when attempting to improve customer experience, but the power of the edge might save the day.

If telcos want to be able to improve customer experience, data needs to be collected and analysed. This might sound like a very obvious statement to make, but the growing privacy movement across the world, and the potential of new regulatory restraints, might make this more difficult.

This is where the edge could play a more significant role. One of the more prominent discussions from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year was the role of the edge, and it does appear this conversation has continued through to Light Reading’s Big 5G Event in Denver.

Some might say artificial intelligence and data analytics are solutions looking for a problem, but in this instance, there is a very real issue to address. Improving customer experience though analytics will only be successful if implemented quickly, some might suggest in real-time, therefore the models used to improve performance should be hosted on the edge. This is an example of where the latency business model can directly impact operations.

It also addresses another few issues, firstly, the cost of sending data back to a central data centre. As it was pointed out today, telcos cannot afford to send all customer data back to be analysed today, it is simply an unreasonable quantity, therefore the more insight which can be actioned on the edge, with only the genuinely important insight being sent back to train models, the more palatable customer experience management becomes.

Secondly, the privacy issue is partly addressed. The more which is actioned on the edge, as close to the customer as possible, the lesser the concerns of the privacy advocates. Yes, data is still being collected, analysed and (potentially) actioned upon, but as soon as the insight is realised the sooner it can be deleted.

There are still sceptics when it comes to the edge, the latency business case, artificial intelligence and data analytics, but slowly more cases are starting to emerge to add credibility.

Verizon continues quest to correct content car crash

The Verizon mission to conquer the content world has been anything but a smooth ride to date, and now it is reportedly searching for a buyer for Tumblr.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Verizon executives are on the search to offload the platform. The Verizon Media Group has been under considerable pressure in recent months, as the promise of value through content and diversification has eluded the telco.

Looking at the most recent earnings call, Verizon Media Group revenue was $1.8 billion, down 7.2% year-on-year for the quarter. Declines in desktop advertising were primarily blamed, with the dip continuing to more than offset growth in mobile and native advertising. Considering the effort the telco had to exert to acquire Yahoo, not to mention the headaches it had to endure, some might have hoped there would be more immediate value.

The last couple of months have seen Verizon attempt to make money from the mockery, with a particular focus on job cuts. In January, it was announced 7% of the media unit’s workforce, some 800 roles, would be sacrificed to the gods of profits, and now it seems Tumblr is being marshalled to the alter.

What is worth noting is this is a platform which has promise.

After being acquired by Yahoo during 2013 for $1.1 billion, Verizon inherited Tumblr through the much mangled $4.8 billion acquisition of Yahoo in 2017. Although some might struggle to understand what Tumblr does, the all-encompassing blogging platform currently has 465.4 million blogs and 172 billion posts.

Tumblr is a tricky one to understand what it actually does, but instead of trying to pigeon hole it into a definition perhaps the better approach would be to let it just be itself. Tumblr defines itself as a blank canvas, allowing users to post text, photos, GIFs, videos, live videos and audio, or pretty much anything the user wants to.

Perhaps this is why Verizon has struggled with the brand and presumably failing to realise the potential. Telcos generally cultivate traditional and relatively closed-minded cultures. With Tumblr just being itself, rather than fitting into a tidy tick-box exercise, Verizon may be struggling to communicate the value to customers or even devise an out-of-the-box business model to monetize it effectively.

This assessment is perhaps supported by where the media business has seen success. Financial news for example, or the delivery of sports content. These are not exactly complex business models to understand, more difficult to deliver however, as they are more functional. These are the areas CFO Matt Ellis was boasting about during the earnings call.

While there has not been any official commitment or denial to the rumours from Verizon so far, there does seem to be some appetite from the industry. According to Buzzfeed, Pornhub VP Corey Price is ‘extremely interested’ in potentially acquiring Tumblr, promising to re-discover the NSFW edge, one of the factors which drove the popularity of Tumblr during the early days.

The future of Tumblr might be a bit hazy for the moment, but one thing is clear. Verizon is mapping out a very effective usecase on how not to diversify into the content world.

Google goes back to ad-supported model for its YouTube Originals

Google seems to come a cropper when it comes to its YouTube content ambitions, announcing all of its Original content will now be available for ‘free’.

As part of the evolution of YouTube, Google attempted something which could have been viewed as quite drastic; it introduced a paywall. For $11.99 a month, users could access ad-free content, Google’s library of music and also its Original content. For a platform which has a reputation for free content, it was a strategy which flew in the face of logic.

However, it would appear this strategy has been less than successful. This is not to say it is dead, but more work needs to be done on the foundations before the palace can be built. Starting at some point this year, YouTube Original content will be available for ‘free’, with adverts, on the YouTube platform for all to view.

“Today, we announced that all new YouTube Original series and specials will soon be available for fans around the world to watch for free with ads — just like they enjoy other content on the platform,” YouTube said in a blog entry.

The paywall business model might be attractive in the long-run, but Google is still a business with investors; it has to make money now as well.

“Presumably YouTube’s gargantuan global audience means its more lucrative to use advertising rather than subs to monetise those shows [YouTube Originals],” said Ed Barton, Chief Analyst at Ovum.

“YouTube has huge audiences in many countries which don’t have much propensity to subscribe to online video services so focusing on advertising presumably unlocks a lot of value in those markets.”

Perhaps this is what we should take away from this move; Google tried to do something new, it didn’t reap the rewards, and now the team is going back to the tried and tested ad-supported model. It was too much self-disruption to stomach is a single sitting.

The content conundrum

Despite content being one of the biggest discussions in the tech world over the last few years, the question of how to make money still remains.

On one side of the fence, you have the paywall business model. There are numerous benefits here, recurring revenues and brand stickiness being the most obvious, though it does also create a sense of authority in the field. This premium perception will be attractive to the content creators, and it does also simplify the process of paying the creators themselves.

However, a paywall does make it more difficult to scale viewing figures and does mean you have to justify the cost to consumers. Dud content is punishable through the trials of social media meaning more attention (and money) much be spent on creating original content.

Looking at the ad-supported model, the practice which drove Google to the behemoth it is today, content is much more accessible and simpler to scale. You also have the advantage of not being punished for suspect-quality content as consumers are being entertained for ‘free’.

But there is also the downside, which mirrors the paywall approach almost perfectly. Content creators will be afraid of de-valuing their work, while there is also the complicated matter of getting paid. Consumers are not necessarily guaranteed to come back, and when you have created a reputation for a free-content provider, shifting users towards premium products becomes much more difficult.

Google’s long-term ambitions

The ad-supported business model has fuelled Google’s growth over the last decade, though it would be stupid to ignore the trends which are in the market.

“Google and YouTube should certainly have an eye on over-arching trends in the content space,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight.

“Traditional content creators are gradually moving towards the world of OTT, and YouTube is the most popular streaming platform on the planet. It has to figure out how to change its perception in the eyes of the consumer, ushering the masses behind the paywall.”

As Pescatore points out, consumers view YouTube as a platform for free content. This engrained perception will present challenges in driving adoption of the premium products, however offering the Original programming for free might work as somewhat of a teaser to justify the expense of a subscription.

YouTube is a platform which can survive by solely focusing on the ad-supported model, however it will be leaving money on the table. Premium streaming services are certainly gaining more traction, creating more value throughout the entire digital ecosystem. Why would Google want to ignore this potential boost to revenues?

Diversification is key for every business, not just the ones who are under financial pressures. Google has consistently shown it is an organization which consistently strives for the new and is not afraid of setbacks.

The movement towards a paywall on the YouTube platform might not have worked for the moment, but there are simply too many gains to ignore. Releasing YouTube Originals as free content might be a smart way to alter the perception of YouTube, demonstrating the value of what is behind the paywall to consumers, and also proving content creators their pride and joy would not be devalued on the platform.

For the moment, Google executives seem to have decided that there is more money in ad-supported revenues than the paywall for YouTube Originals. This might not help long-term ambitions of making the paywall model work, but perhaps it was too much of a drastic step away from the traditional Google business model.

This is a minor set-back, but the YouTube paywall is far from destroyed.

Google introduces auto-delete

Privacy is proving to be one of the long-standing themes of 2019 and Google latest move perhaps should be considered an industry standard.

Starting with its Search and Maps products, Google will introduce an auto-delete option for users in the privacy settings. While users will be able to continue to manually delete location and search data held by the internet giant, a new option will soon be available which will automatically delete data after three or 18 months.

“You should always be able to manage your data in a way that works best for you and we’re committed to giving you the best controls to make that happen,” the team said in a blog post.

This is certainly an interesting approach, which could satisfy numerous concerns from all corners of digital society.

Firstly, for the privacy conscious, Google is offering different options for the user to regain control of their personal data. The idea looks simple enough, and relatively transparent. Sceptics will be hunting for a loophole, and quite rightly so, the technology industry has lost the right to credibility when it comes to privacy matters.

Secondly, the retention of data for a short-period of time ensures the Google products can work better. Although popular opinion is turning against hyper-scale personalisation, the advertising machines are making personalisation a dirty word, it is what makes Google’s search engine and mapping product so successful. If Google wasn’t able to train these products to be individualised, they would be pretty generic and awful.

Finally, it still affords Google the opportunity to make money. Privacy concerns aside for the moment, Google still has to be given the opportunity to make money otherwise the products which we have become so reliant on over the last decade will cease to exist. Google is not a registered charity, if it isn’t making money it will no-longer be.

Perhaps the most important factor in this update is the reasonable nature of it. Google is offering terms to the value exchange. It is placing a time limit on its ability to make money from personal data in exchange for offering free services. Admittedly, time constraints are supposedly included in GDPR, though such is the complex and confusing nature of the rules, there are plenty of loopholes and grey areas to expose.

As far as we’re concerned, this is a good move for Google and the digital society on the whole. Yes, Google is perhaps making the best of a difficult situation, claiming PR points by appearing to voluntarily promote privacy in the face of regulatory reform, but it would be nice to see such approaches as industry standard.

On the surface, its reasonable, transparent and fulfils the promise of the digital economy, where Google offers services in exchange for data. Here’s hoping more of the internet giants follow suit.