Google facing another rebellion over Government contracts

676 employees have signed a petition refusing to work with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) suggesting the agency is violating international human rights.

While public sector contracts can prove to be incredibly fruitful for the cloud giants, the questionable activities of the US Government have led to a number of different objections from Silicon Valley employees. Google is the focal point of this campaign, but it is not the only one which is experiencing internal uprisings.

“It’s time to stand together again and state clearly that we will not work on any such contract,” the rebelling Googlers wrote on Medium. “We demand that Google publicly commit not to support CBP, ICE, or ORR with any infrastructure, funding, or engineering resources, directly or indirectly, until they stop engaging in human rights abuses.”

Over the next few weeks, the CBP will begin the procurement process to identify a new supplier to cloud-based services, for a minimum of a four-year period, potentially beginning in the second quarter of 2020. The contract is incredibly wide-ranging, with various components including security, identity and access management, public cloud storage and data backup, disaster recovery, network management and orchestration and virtualisation.

As you can see from all the components above, taken from one of the RFI documents, this could be an incredibly lucrative contract for the winner. However, these 676 employees want to make sure it is not Google who profits from the misery this agency inflicts on hundreds of individuals.

This is where the dispute lies. Google traditionally has a culture which is incredibly liberal and leftist, and therefore attracts employees who fit this description. A proportion of these employees will object to policies enacted by the current occupant of the White House.

While the employees are reacting to the treatment of refugees on the Southern Border from the CPB, but also the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the rebels have pointed towards Google’s own AI principles.

Google has attempted to take the lead on creating an ethical and morally sound approach to AI, stating it would not pursue technologies where the ‘purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights’. Should the management team want to continue this contract, it would certainly irritate a significant number of Googlers, but the inference would be the activities on the Southern border are legitimate. This would simply add fuel to the fire.

“History is clear: the time to say no is now,” the statement concludes. “We refuse to be complicit.

“It is unconscionable that Google, or any other tech company, would support agencies engaged in caging and torturing vulnerable people. And we are not alone — the world is watching, and the facts are clear. We stand with workers and advocates across the industry who are demanding that the tech industry refuse to provide the infrastructure for mass atrocity.”

This is of course not the first time Googlers have rebelled against the power of its technology being used to questionable means. Back in April, Google’s management team caved to employee pressure, ditching a valuable contract for the US military which used its AI smarts to make drone strikes more accurate.

What Google is fast-finding out is that its employees still believe the ‘Do No Evil’ mantra, even if it has been officially dropped by the company.

It should be noted that Google is not the only company with rebellions and idealistic employees. Last year, Amazon faced a similar internal uprising, this one focused on the application of its facial recognition technologies by police forces and government agencies, some of which had little oversight, almost zero accountability and conducted no public consultation. The general public should at least have the right to decide whether it wants to sacrifice personal privacy rights in the pursuit of safety and national security.

“In the face of this immoral US policy, and the US’s increasingly inhumane treatment of refugees and immigrants beyond this specific policy, we are deeply concerned that Amazon is implicated, providing infrastructure and services that enable ICE and DHS,” the Amazon rebels stated.

“We refuse to build the platform that powers ICE, and we refused to contribute to tools that violate human rights.”

There will of course be other examples outside of the cloud giants, though what is worth noting is the precarious tight-rope walk Silicon Valley is being forced to tread currently.

On one hand, these company have a fiduciary responsibility to make money for shareholders; the management team cannot simply ignore lucrative contracts if they want to keep their jobs.

However, these companies also have a reputation to protect. This reputation is what attracts the world’s best and brightest engineers and continuing to attract these individuals is one of the most important elements of the business model. The ‘Do No Evil’ mantra of Google is a perfect example of what attracts young, idealistic and enthusiastic graduates, the valuable resource which underpins success.

The people who work for Google or Amazon, do not want to help the government blow things up, evolve the US into a Big Brother surveillance state or help morally bankrupt individuals violate the decency of individuals from a different country, culture or religion. This is not what they signed-up for.

However, money men are mostly blind to these arguments. They will invest in oil companies irrelevant of the environmental damage, arms companies irrelevant of the harm to human life and bankers irrelevant of their reputation in society. These are people who are tasked with making money, and they demand profits from the Google management team.

This is a very delicate situation to balance, and we suspect it won’t be too long before the vocal and boisterous Googlers are objecting to something else.

Ofcom introduces text-to-switch

Thanks to Ofcom the days of being passed around a call-centre should theoretically be over, as new text-to-switch rules come into play.

Starting today (July 1) customers will be able to end mobile contracts simply by texting their provider. It’ll end an incredibly frustrating process used by all mobile operators to keep valuable post-paid customers from leaving their grasp.

It has been one of the biggest complaints against the telcos over the years; ending contracts is an incredibly painful process. While it might leave customers frustrated and infuriated, it does also help the telcos improve their churn. This is a system which is effectively loyalty through stubbornness, as the telcos enter a game of hide-and-seek with customers. It’s a competition of will and a perfect example of the telcos not understanding customer service.

“Breaking up with your mobile provider has never been easier thanks to Ofcom’s new rules,” said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director. “You won’t need to have that awkward chat with your current provider to take advantage of the great deals available.”

Of course, while the majority of the telcos will be disappointed with the new rules, realising they will have to figure out new strategies to keep customers instead of forcing them into loyalty through the torture of hold-music, there will be some who are happy.

“I’m delighted that text-to-switch makes it easier and faster for everyone to get the best deal, helping people change to a new mobile provider with a few taps on their phone,” said Dave Dyson, CEO of Three.

“At Three, we’re making huge improvements to our 4G experience and preparing to launch the UK’s fastest 5G network, in more cities and towns than anyone else this year. This makes it the perfect time for people to consider the outstanding experience Three can offer, both now and in the future.”

Three might well be happy with the development considering the opportunity it has as we approach the era of 5G tariffs. Although the telco has not unveiled any pricing plans for 5G yet, the scene as been set for a disruptor to enter the fray and cause chaos.

EE has launched its 5G network and Vodafone is entering the small numbers in the countdown. Both have detailed tariffs on their websites, and both are charging a considerable premium for the pleasure of 5G. There is a massive opportunity for Three to undercut these two competitors on price, and with the new text-to-switch rules, it will be easier to lure potential subscriptions away.

In a perfect world, this text-to-switch initiative will force the telcos into a more customer-centric mind frame. Most businesses will tell you it is more profitable to cultivate customers first and chase new business second, but that have never really been the case for the telcos. Almost every business is geared towards acquisition first, leading the industry to its current position where it has one of the worst reputations for customer service and experience.

Perhaps these new rules will encourage the telcos to think about customers in a different way. The technology and data are certainly there to create a more valuable and informed customer experience, but only time will tell whether the telcos embrace it in the same way the OTTs do.

Loyalty penalties for broadband, mobile and TV finally tackled

Ofcom has introduced rules which will aim to tackle ‘penalties’ imposed on renewing customers by broadband, mobile and content providers.

As part of the new rules, providers will have to inform customers 10 to 40 days prior to the end of the customers contract, the period where financial penalties would be applied for changing providers. In the notification, customers will be told the end date of the contract, differences in contract pricing moving forward, termination conditions and availability of cheaper deals.

Although customers will still have to be proactive in contacting rival competitors for better deals on the market, the hope is a more transparent approach with spur consumers into finding the best possible option. Telcos will have a year to ensure the right business processes and technologies are in place to action the rules.

“We’re making sure customers are treated fairly, by making companies give them the information they need, when they need it,” said Lindsey Fussell, Ofcom’s Consumer Group Director.

“This will put power in the hands of millions of people who’re paying more than necessary when they’re no longer tied to a contract.”

The initial idea was put forward back in December, with the belief as many as 20 million UK consumers have passed their initial contract period and could be paying more than necessary. The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport escalated the issue in February with a public consultation aimed at moving the industry towards a position where loyalty was rewarded, ending aggressive cultures towards customer acquisition.

In September last year, the UK Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) launched a super-complaint with the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) suggesting service providers over-charging renewing customers to bring in an extra £4.1 billion a year. Research commissioned by Broadband Genie has found many over 55s could be paying too much for their broadband service but lack the knowledge or confidence to choose a new package.

“Pre-emptive alerts and information about broadband and TV contract periods are good news for consumers since many have in effect been paying a premium for their loyalty once out of contract,” said Adrian Baschnonga, EY’s Telecoms Lead Analyst. “Today’s rules pave the way for a more proactive dialogue between service providers and their customers, which can unlock higher levels of satisfaction in the long term.”

While it will certainly take some work to bed in, such rules have the potential to move attitudes in the industry to prioritise customer retention over acquisition to meet profitability objectives. Much research points to this being a more rewarding approach to business, though few in the telco space practice this theory.

“uSwitch’s research found that the aggregate cost of out-of-contract charges to telecoms consumers is £41 a second,” said Richard Neudegg, Head of Regulation at uSwitch.com. “This is why time is of the essence – everyday spent waiting for these notifications to be rolled out, another £3.5 million is overspent on these services – meaning that more than £350 million has already been wasted since the consultation closed in February.

“While it has been a long time coming, this is an important step by the regulator to address what has long been a clearly unacceptable gap in the rules, penalising consumers to the tune of millions.”

This is a step in the right direction, but it will take more to ensure telcos shift their culture. The idea of customer acquisition over retention is deeply engrained in every aspect of the business and will define how the business operates. That said, progress is progress.

SFR gets fined for the print of its fine print

French telco SFR has lost its argument in the Paris Court of Appeal for illegal and abusive clauses, with the ruling also noting font size T&Cs was too small for the consumer to fully appreciate the contract.

The case itself was brought forward by French consumer group UFC-Que Choisir, which claimed a number of the clauses in SFR contracts were not fair to the consumer. One of these clauses allowed SFR to deny responsibility for any network issues resulting in up to 10% failure rate in calls and texts. Another clause would allow the telco to add additional fees to the users contract should the user want to change payment method.

These clauses would certainly be of interest, but perhaps the most bizarre aspect of this case is the ruling on font size. The Paris Court of Appeal upheld the complaint that 3mm was too small for users to read and appropriately understand the agreement into which they were entering. This is of course a common tactic for the more nefarious individuals and organizations around the world, but considering the ‘creative’ advertising strategies which we have seen in the telco space, we are not surprised by any underhanded tactics employed by operators to secure additional profits.

Whether this is the beginning of another trend remains to be seen. The ‘up to’ metric is being done away with and operators are generally being forced to be more realistic with speed promises in advertising, but the T&Cs is another area which needs to be addressed. Right now understanding mobile contracts comprehensively is limited to those with legal degrees, this is unfair and unreasonable so should be given consideration. Making the type font bigger would certainly help.

UK operators accused of ripping off loyal punters at the end of bundle deals

The UK Citizen’s Advice service has advised that UK citizens are getting rinsed by their operators when they come to the end of subsidised phone contracts.

One of the major reasons we sign up to two-year contracts is that we want a shiny new smartphone but haven’t got the cash to pay for one up-front. For decades operators have looked to entice customers by effectively offering to finance the purchase of said smartphone in return for a post-paid contract commitment. The total cost of ownership is invariably greater than buying the handset yourself and then going SIM-only, but that’s a price many are willing to pay.

But according to Citizen’s Advice, unless they specifically ask for a new contract, customers of Vodafone, EE and Three continue to be charged at the same rate even after their lock-in period has expired. In other words, even after they’ve paid the phone off they continue to be charged as if they hadn’t.

“Some of the largest mobile phone providers are routinely overcharging their loyal customers,” said Gillian Guy, Chief Exec of Citizens Advice. “Mobile phones are now an essential part of modern life, but the way that the cost of handsets are hidden within some mobile phone contracts gives phone providers a way to exploit their customers.

“It is clearly unfair that some phone providers are charging loyal customers for handsets that they have already paid for. It’s especially concerning that older customers are more likely to be stung by this sharp practice.

“Phone providers must now make sure that any customers staying in a contract past the end of a fixed deal have their monthly bill reduced to reflect the cost of the handset. Providers could make it much easier for consumers to compare prices by separating out the cost of handsets from the cost of services like data and minutes for all contracts, that way it would be much clearer what they’re paying for.”

To be fair to operators our experience is that they usually get in touch towards the end of a contract to dangle further smartphone carrots in a bit to get you to sell your soul for another couple of years. But if they don’t then Citizen’s Advice is right to say there should be an automatic reduction in the bill. That process is presumably so straightforward that it’s hard to give those operators that don’t do it the benefit of the doubt.

Here’s a summary of the findings. Citizen’s Advice offered no explanation of why O2 and the MNVOs weren’t apparently scrutinised. Perhaps they got bored and figured they’d made their point anyway.

Citizens advice operator table